After reading “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching”, by Michael Greger, M.D., I was stunned to realize the extent to which we have endangered our health by allowing factory farms to flourish and produce 99% of the meat, dairy, and eggs we eat. Not only are dangerous flu viruses mutating because of these concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s), but we are also being exposed to some other very serious bacteria and pathogens. It seems that things have gotten out of hand in our food production, especially in the livestock sector. In my last blog, Dr. Greger explained the growing potential of deadly flu viruses; in Part 2 of the interview, we discuss E. coli, Salmonella and other worrisome pathogens.
Kathy Freston: Where does E. coli come from and how does it get into food? Why is it often found on vegetables?
Michael Greger: E. coli is an intestinal pathogen. It only gets in the food if fecal matter gets in the food. Since plants don’t have intestines, all E. coli infections–in fact all food poisoning–comes from animals. When’s the last time you heard of anyone getting Dutch elm disease or a really bad case of aphids? People don’t get plant diseases; they get animal diseases. The problem is that because of the number of animals raised today, a billion tons of manure are produced every year in the United States–the weight of 10,000 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. Dairy cow and pig factories often dump millions of gallons of putrefying waste into massive open-air cesspits, which can leak and contaminate water used to irrigate our crops. That’s how a deadly fecal pathogen like E. coli O157:H7 can end up contaminating our spinach. So regardless of what we eat, we all need to fight against the expansion of factory farming in our communities, our nation, and around the world.
KF: What percentage of the population gets hit by the bacteria? How many of them die? Could that likely increase?
MG: While E. coli O157:H7 remains the leading cause of acute kidney failure in U.S. children, fewer than 100,000 Americans get infected every year, and fewer than 100 die. But millions get infected with other types of E. coli that can cause urinary tract infections (UTIs) that can invade the bloodstream and cause an estimated 36,000 deaths annually in the United States.
KF: It seems we only occasionally hear of the very few terrible cases where E. coli kills; is it really a widespread problem?
MG: When medical researchers at the University of Minnesota took more than 1,000 food samples from multiple retail markets, they found evidence of fecal contamination in 69% of the pork and beef and 92% of the poultry samples. Nine out of ten chicken carcasses in the store may be contaminated with fecal matter. And half of the poultry samples were contaminated with the UTI-causing E. coli bacteria.
Scientists now suspect that by eating chicken, women infect their lower intestinal tract with these meat-borne bacteria, which can then creep up into their bladder. Hygiene measures to prevent UTIs have traditionally included wiping from front to back after bowel movements and urinating after intercourse to flush out any invaders, but now women can add poultry avoidance as a way to help prevent urinary tract infections.
KF: Are there any long term problems for people who ingest E. coli and have a bad day or two with diarrhea, or is the problem over once out of the system?
MG: Last month the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention released a report on the long-term consequences of common causes of food poisoning. Life-long complications of E. coli O157:H7 infection include end-stage kidney disease, permanent brain damage, and insulin-dependent diabetes.