A deadly outbreak of what some scientists call an “entirely new” strain of E. coli that contains several antibiotic-resistant genes has world food safety experts puzzled and justly concerned.
The media covering this tragedy, however, are not puzzled. They are covering this story like fleas on a junkyard dog. And they should. It’s a public safety issue that you and I need to understand to help protect our families.
But, if media news coverage of the event has been mostly accurate, commentary and opinions from so-called experts – many with enough education to know better – have seized a new opportunity to unjustly scare your customers. The latest E. coli event continues to produce a lot of misinformation from my colleagues in the media who have never stepped boot into an E. coli laden cow patty.
For instance, David Katz, M.D., director, Yale Prevention Research Center, admits that while beans, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, garlic, lentils, mung beans and radishes are currently the focus of the ongoing E. coli investigation, he believes animals are the culprit. Katz argues that “the entire plant kingdom” is innocent in this case.
Katz, writing an opinion posted by The Huffington Post this week, “E. coli: Blame the Meat, Not the Sprouts,” takes the strange stance of assuming the source of the E. coli bugs before the scientific evidence is complete. Strange because Katz, as a graduate of medical school, should know better than to make assumptions until the scientific evidence is clear.
If Sergeant Joe Friday was on this case he would likely remind us, “Just the facts, mame.”
So, here are the facts so far: Food safety investigators in Europe are closely monitoring the E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 21 and sickened more than 2,300. Tainted vegetables are suspected in the Germany outbreak, though government authorities have yet to determine a cause and have backtracked from previous statements linking the illnesses to cucumbers and then sprouts. Samples from a German sprout farm tested by the Lower-Saxony agriculture ministry tested negative for the “super toxic” E. coli strain responsible for the illnesses. A World Health Organization (WHO) food safety expert called the E. coli responsible “a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before.” That claim was disputed by a U.S. Centers for Disease Control food borne-disease expert who says the strain in question previously caused a single case in Korea in the 1990s. Dr. Robert Tauxe said genetic fingerprints may vary from specimen to specimen, but that is not necessarily enough to constitute a new strain.
Bottom line: There’s an army of folks who have spent the better part of their careers squinting into a microscope that are feverishly working to solve – or at least contain – this new food crisis. It may take a while – maybe weeks, maybe months – before we have more answers.
In the meantime, there are now 7 billion of us on this planet and we still need to eat. I plan to do so. I also plan – as the food safety experts have told us long before now – to wash our fruits and vegetables, don’t use the same utensils to prepare vegetables and meat, cook meat thoroughly and to wash our hands before preparing food and frequently wash during the process.
That’s the advice I would hope people like the good doctor Katz and others would give to the American public, your customers. Instead, Katz seizes the opportunity of the E. coli outbreak to, once again, vilify food animal production. An example from Katz:
“Large-volume meat production means large farms, large herds, and large, centralized, highly efficient processing plants. At best, this all translates into relative neglect of any individual steer, and a relative inability to inspect the quality of every steak. At worst, it offers reminders of the “jungle” to which Upton Sinclair introduced us all to at the turn of the 20th century,” he wrote.
“And it means feed animals are raised as an industrial commodity, rather than as creatures,” Katz continued. “Their natural diets are disregarded, and they are fed whatever leads to the fastest growth and greatest profit.”
If that passage from Katz’ column was a subtle condemnation of meat, the following makes quite clear the doctor’s opinion of your livelihood:
“In the end, we must concede it is an appetite for large quantities of meat derived from abused, drugged, mass-produced, mass-slaughtered cannibalistic cows that is responsible for E. coli 0157H7, mad cow disease and probably the new germ sailing on sprouts (or whatever) into unsuspecting households,” Katz wrote.
Probably? Whatever? Those don’t sound like words of scientific reasoning.
Unfortunately, opinions such as Katz’ and others will encourage at least some consumers to avoid meat. Indeed, livestock production may well have played a role in Europe’s E. coli outbreak, especially if livestock manure was used to fertilize the vegetables. Assuming that is the case, should we then ban all livestock production? And, if we ban livestock production, where the heck are we going to get manure to grow vegetables? Does commercial fertilizer then become a good thing, the savior of our planet? Strange, indeed.
Modern science gives us many tools to eat better and prolong our lives. But we can’t pick the science we like and ignore the science we don’t like. Katz, and others ready to condemn livestock production, would do well to wait until the food safety inspectors finish squinting into their microscopes at slides of E. coli. The bugs may tell a different story.