The Real Cause of E. Coli outbreaks

Posted on Tuesday 3 November 2009

Again, E. Coli is in the news. There was an article in the New York Times about the most recent E. Coli outbreak, which has been traced back to ground beef from Fairbank Farms. When I was growing up, there weren’t E. Coli outbreaks of the lethal nature found today. Certainly, the food-processing procedures and related precautions taken today are far more stringent than they were 30 years ago, yet E. Coli outbreaks didn’t seem to be the health problem they are today. What has changed?

Now, this may sound strange, but the advent of the modern feed lot with corn-fed cattle is really a major contributor to all the lethal E. Coli outbreaks there have been over the past two decades. The earliest E. Coli outbreak I found reported was one from August 1990, as seen at MSNBC . It appears that the lethal nature of E. Coli outbreaks is fairly well linked to the growth of corn-fed beef as an agricultural production method.

Cows did not evolve to eat corn. Cows are grazing animals and designed to eat grasses. Unfortunately, modern agricorps have found feeding cows corn to be far less expensive than allowing them to graze naturally or feeding them grass in a feedlot. The problem with feeding cows corn is that they also require far more medication and hormonal treatments, as they have serious health issues when fed a corn-based diet. Feeding a cow corn also causes the cow’s digestive tract, which normally has a fairly neutral pH, to become fairly acidic.

The acidity leads to the evolution of acid tolerant or resistant E. Coli bacteria strains. This becomes a serious problem when the E. Coli is now allowed to contaminate the food supply. Previously, when cows were grass-fed, the E. Coli was not a real health issue, since the primary defense for the human immune system for food-based pathogens, stomach digestive acids, would eliminate most of the E. Coli, since it was not acid tolerant. Now that the E. Coli strains are acid tolerant, they survive the stomach’s acid and go on to become a serious health risk.

If the beef producers were forced to pay for the increased costs to society, caused by the increased medical risks of creating acid-tolerant E. Coli bacteria species, it would probably wipe out most, if not all of the cost savings of raising beef cattle on corn. However, since the costs to society, especially the medical costs, are an externality, they are not reflected in the price of corn-fed beef at the grocery store. What is really surprising is that none of the media point out the real cause of the recent E. Coli outbreaks—industrial feed lot cattle farming.

If the media were to point out the link between industrial feed lot cattle and the health risks caused by acid tolerant E. Coli bacteria, I would imagine that the large agricorps would be called to task on it… yet there is no mention in any of the articles over the past two decades of how changing agricultural practices have essentially created this threat.


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