At least 35 people died in Germany this spring and more than 3,300 fell ill from an E. coli outbreak that left health officials scrambling to identify and isolate the source. By mid-June it was announced the source of the contamination was determined to be sprouts from a farm in northern Germany. Health officials tracked the bacteria’s path from hospital patients struggling with diarrhea and kidney failure, to restaurants where they had dined, to specific meals and ingredients they ate, and finally back to that single farm.
What contaminated the sprouts in the first place is still under investigation.
Investigators claim it was little surprise that sprouts were the culprit. They have been blamed in at least 30 food-poisoning cases over the past 15 years in the United States and a large outbreak in Japan in 1996 that killed 11 people and sickened more than 9,000. Growing conditions for sprouts and the fact they are eaten mostly raw make them ideal transmitters of disease. Cultivated in water, they require heat and humidity — precisely the same conditionsE. coli needs to thrive.
Scientists say E. colican stick tightly to the surface of seeds used to grow sprouts and can lay dormant for months. Once water is added to make the seeds grow, the bacteria can reproduce up to 100,000 times.
Soon after the E. coli outbreak was announced, some pundits were quick to condemn livestock production as the true villain. For instance, David Katz, MD, director, Yale Prevention Research Center, wrote an opinion published by The Huffington Post in early June claiming that “the entire plant kingdom” is innocent in this case.
Katz seized 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 at the turn of the 20th century.”
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 O157:H7, mad cow disease and probably the new germ sailing on sprouts (or whatever) into unsuspecting households.”
While many pundits seem eager to vilify livestock production, they don’t seem nearly as interested in telling the American public that technology has a solution for food contaminations. It’s called irradiation, and it’s currently underused.
Irradiation is the process of exposing food to ionizing radiation to kill bacteria such as E. coli It also destroys a host of other contaminants such as viruses and insects.
Irradiation is approved for use on food products in 40 countries, and since its approval in the United States in 2000, more than 150 million pounds of irradiated ground beef have been sold to American consumers. Omaha Steaks and Schwan’s irradiate every hamburger they sell.
However, some consumer organizations, environmental groups and a few producers fear “ionizing radiation” used in the process that destroys the bacteria. In fact, consumer fears — fueled by critics with little evidence — have prevented widespread use of irradiation. Apparently, the fear of extremely low levels of radiation is of greater concern than our fear of E. coli and a host of other contaminants. It shouldn’t be.
Our fears of irradiation are similar to those exhibited a century ago when pasteurized milk first came into use. That seemed to work out pretty well.
Scientists from around the globe, however, believe irradiation is a silver bullet that can drastically reduce food contamination and human illness from tainted food. It is not, they believe, a replacement for sanitation and other regulated food-safety practices already in place, but it is a tool that can greatly increase food safety and minimize human suffering. What’s not to like about that?
The European E. coli outbreak of the past few weeks should serve to spur the implementation of irradiation. Let’s stop pointing fingers and start irradiating our food.