Are we getting the real story about E. coli? As a physician trained in preventive medicine and public health, I am disheartened by the recent media coverage of this public health threat. Most Americans aren't getting some important information that could help them understand the danger and how to prevent it. They need to know that meat consumption and intensive animal agriculture play key roles in the E. coli problem.
While news coverage has focused on the contamination of spinach and lettuce, not enough attention has been paid to one key source of E. coli: animal manure. E. coli 0157:H7 is naturally found in the intestines of cattle and some other animals. When livestock farms or "concentrated feeding operations" foul groundwater or irrigation water, or a food handler with unwashed hands passes along his or her animal-borne infection, fruits and vegetables can become contaminated.
Over the past month, spinach and lettuce - two normally healthful foods - have been blamed for causing hundreds of E. coli infections, including some deaths. Cattle manure is the suspected source in the spinach-related outbreak.
But meat itself has usually been the main transmitter of E. coli and other food-borne illnesses. In early October, an Iowa company recalled 5,200 pounds of ground beef suspected to have been contaminated by the deadly strain, E. coli 0157:H7. Such recalls of beef products are common, though they rarely receive the media attention that the contaminated spinach did.
In the United States, more E. coli infections have been caused by eating undercooked ground beef than any other food. Meat can become contaminated during animal slaughter, when the bacteria can spread to various cuts of meat, the ground, equipment and the workers' hands.
The results can be deadly. E. coli 0157:H7 is responsible for approximately 60 deaths and more than 70,000 infections per year in the United States. Tragically, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. Children are particularly susceptible to a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is the most common cause of acute kidney failure in children. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done for children who have developed the disease, except for supportive care. Therefore, prevention remains the most important factor in avoiding the potential short- and long-term complications of an E. coli 0157:H7 infection.
The bottom line: Contaminated beef poses the biggest E. coli risk, and pollution from intensive animal agriculture contaminates produce. The most effective way to fight back is to eliminate meat from our diets.
That decision will have other benefits as well. Millions of Americans are already setting meat aside for health reasons or because of ethical concerns about animals. As they do so, they lower their risk of dying from heart disease by about 25 percent and reduce their dependency on cholesterol-lowering medications. They lose weight and cut their risk of cancer by about 40 percent. And the American Dietetic Association has confirmed that a well-planned vegetarian diet fulfills all of the nutrition requirements for all stages of life, including childhood.
Currently, our tax dollars are supporting an expensive effort to investigate slaughter, processing, and preparation practices that may decrease the risk of E. coli contamination. However, this costly and highly speculative effort will not eliminate the risk. Nor will it remove the increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and cancer caused by eating meat.
By moving to a vegetarian diet, consumers can help end the problem of pollution from factory farms as well as reduce the risk of food-borne illness and diet-related diseases. Best of all, it's a choice we can make today - even as we're waiting for industry and the government to get serious about fighting E. coli.
Hope Ferdowsian is a nutrition researcher and public health specialist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 5100 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20016; Web site: http://www.pcrm.org.