Larry M. Stone Food Safety Advocate


Friday, September 29, 2006

Article From the Meating Place In Print Online

THE VOCAL POINT: E. coli spinach outbreak on center of meat industry's plate

Dan Murphy on 9/29/2006 for

You knew this was coming.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has so far been unable to pinpoint the source of the E. coli O157:H7 in fresh bagged spinach, more than 180 people in 26 states have been infected, and one person has died during the last two weeks.

Worse, CDC reported that more than half of the people infected ended up in the hospital — nearly double the typical rate in O157:H7 incidents. About 15 percent of those patients developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, again a rate that is "higher than normal.

"It's enough to qualify the outbreak as a major food-safety failure.

On the part of the meat industry, to listen to some of the harsher media critics.

In other words, the spinach isn't responsible for the outbreak; cattle producers and meatpackers are.

That's because E. coli O157:H7 is associated with cattle manure, and that's enough evidence to convict producers and packers.

[By the way, anyone know the origins of how the (relatively) innocuous coliform bacteria mutated into such a virulent pathogen? In 1980, Alison O'Brien, a microbiologist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., reasoned that since the toxin produced by pathogenic strains of shigella bacteria mimicked the "new" O157:H7 strain, it was likely that E. coli had somehow incorporated shigella's ability to produce such a toxin.]

What's troubling is that according many media critics, organic growers should be held blameless. For example: In a New York Times story last week, Nina Planck, a food activist and writer, wrote the following screed:

"There is also no evidence so far that Natural Selection Foods, the huge shipper implicated in the outbreak that packages salad greens under more than two dozen brands, failed to use proper handling methods."

Indeed, this epidemic has little to do with the folks who grow and package your greens. The detective trail ultimately leads back to a seemingly unrelated food industry: beef and dairy cattle."

Planck resurrected the notion that O157:H7 thrives in a "new" biological niche: the acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed a grain-based diet, what Planck indelicately labeled "the typical ration on most industrial farms.

"She then repeated the so-called conventional wisdom that contaminated manure from grain-fed cattle contaminates groundwater, and that's what contaminated the spinach.

Maintaining the mythPlanck referenced a 2003 study in The Journal of Dairy Science suggesting that when cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

This parallels a widely reported 1998 study at Cornell University claiming that switching Holstein cows to an all-hay diet caused the number of acid-resistant E. coli cells in the animals' digestive tracts to decline by nearly 100,000 fold in only five days.

All hail the food-safety savior: Hay.

"In a week, we could choke O157 from its favorite home," Planck wrote. "Even if beef cattle were switched to a forage diet just seven days before slaughter, it would greatly reduce cross-contamination by manure of hamburger in meat-packing plants. Such a measure might have prevented the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that plagued the Jack in the Box fast food chain in 1993."

And you thought we were past such simplistic exaggerations.

At the time the Cornell study was published, better brains than mine dissected the research from a number of angles, basically concluding that the media's interpretation that grain is the cause of the E. coli O157:H7 problem was impractical, incomplete and inaccurate.

For one, the Cornell researchers were studying "generic" E. coli, not the pathogenic O15:H7 strain. More importantly, a University of Idaho research team just months later experimentally dosed Holstein steers with E. coli O157:H7 and found that the animals harbored the pathogen longer while being fed a hay diet than a grain-based diet similar to feedlot finishing rations. That Idaho study also showed no difference between grain or hay in acid resistance of E. coli O157:H7 found in cattle feces.

At the same time, a group of Washington State University scientists charged that the Cornell study had "gaping holes" in its design and data, and that it should have been subjected to more stringent peer review before it was made public.

Other scientists' research results were contrary to the Cornell conclusion, the WSU team noted, pointing to studies showing no difference in E. coli populations between grass-fed and feedlot cattle. They also expressed concern that a rapid switch in diets could cause metabolic distress, increasing the chance that E. coli O157:H7 would be shed in feces and end up on the hide of the animal at the packing plant.

You find that kind of nuance in most discussions about the relationship of cattle diets — even among scientists.

About three years ago, I happened to be chatting with the veterinary office attached to Australia's U.S. consulate. Since there had never been an E. coli O157:H7 in that country, many critics claim that the grass-based diet of cattle Down Under is proof that grain feeding is the smoking gun.

"We never had an [E. coli O157:H7] outbreak in our country," he said.

"Have you surveyed cattle populations to see if the pathogen is present?" I asked.

He answered, "We don't need to, mate."

Nor do those who already "know" the answer to the food-safety challenge of E. coli O15:H7 need to reason any further. The conclusions drawn by Planck and others who leap to the simplistic conclusion that feeding grain to cattle "created" O157:H7, and that a magical switch from grain to forage — as if that were even possible — would solve the problem are way off the mark.

But like it or not, the meat industry is implicated in the fallout from this current outbreak. As Planck phrased it, "California's spinach industry is now the financial victim of an outbreak it probably did not cause. So give the spinach growers a break, and direct your attention to the people in our agricultural community who just might be able to solve this deadly problem: beef and dairy farmers."

According to her, E. coli doesn't grow on spinach.

Unfortunately for the industry, solutions to the scientific and PR challenges surrounding E. coli O157:H7 aren't exactly growing on trees, either.

Dan Murphy is a freelance writer and former editor of MMT magazine based in the Pacific Northwest . His column, THE VOCAL POINT, appears in this space each Friday.
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