As I write this, there is still uncertainty about the source of the E. coli outbreak in Europe that has killed more than 20 people. But whatever the ultimate conclusion is regarding the delivery vehicle for this deadly bug, don't blame the sprouts.
Don't blame the beans, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, garlic, lentils, mung beans or radishes, either, although all of these crops are currently the focus of ongoing investigation. In fact, I encourage a "not guilty" verdict for the entire plant kingdom.
There is much we don't yet know about the current E. coli outbreak, but what we do know is scary. The bacterium is apparently new on the scene, never before having been isolated. In addition to obvious and lethal virulence, the bug carries with it a number of antibiotic-resistant genes, making it hard to kill. Good at killing while bad at being killed makes a pathogen very bad news indeed.
Since the source and origins of this organism are still matters of conjecture, how can we exonerate the plant foods on which it is currently hitching a ride? We can do it by learning from the follies of history.
After all, we have been here -- or in fixes much like this -- before. Among the better known of the dangerous E. coli variants is 0157H7. Like the current menace, E. coli 0157H7 is a recently emergent strain, disseminated as a hitchhiker on foodstuffs and capable of killing people. While E. coli 0157H7 has ridden leaves of lettuce and spinach into infamy, this is an enemy whose origins we have met, and we know they are all about meat, not vegetables. When it comes to public health mayhem from mutant germs, plants are innocent bystanders.
Because we eat quite a lot of meat, quite a lot of meat must be produced. 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.
And it means feed animals are raised as an industrial commodity, rather than as creatures. Their natural diets are disregarded, and they are fed whatever leads to the fastest growth and greatest profit. The origins of E. coli 0157H7 are not mysterious; they relate to changes in the feed of cattle. We say "you are what you eat," and since the construction materials for growing bodies come from food and nowhere else, it is literally true. It is just as true if you happen to have hooves.
Cattle eating grasses have a healthy gastrointestinal tract that is not conducive to the growth of this particular mutant germ. Cattle being fed grains instead of grasses -- and in many cases, ground-up bits of other animals including their own species -- develop abnormal conditions in their GI tract, such as a change in the pH level. It is this abnormal environment within cows that consume abnormal diets that gave us E. coli 0157H7. The jury is still out on the new E. coli variant, but precedent likely predicts the trial outcome for our current tribulations.
We -- and our resultant health -- not only are what we eat; we are to some extent what we feed what we eat.
Until quite recently, E. coli 0157H7 was the bad bug in town. Less than two years ago, in October 2009, the New York Times told us the gripping and heart-rending tale of how E. coli ravaged the health of a young woman named Stephanie Smith. The Times, focusing on modern food-processing methods, told how tens of thousands of cattle, millions of pounds of beef, hundreds of miles of transport and acres of food-processing plants all came together to produce the hamburger patty that destroyed this young woman's life. Ms. Smith developed an unusually dire case of E. coli 0157H7 infection after eating a contaminated, pre-packaged ground beef patty, prepared at home by her mother.
The Times did a fine job of highlighting the lapses and vulnerabilities in food processing and food inspection that account for food-borne illness in general, and the destruction of Ms. Smith's life in particular. But the Times limited its investigative assault to aspects of the food supply and its oversight. The true problem resides one layer deeper than that, in the food demand.
Go as far as that article went, and you will be left to believe we might have prevented new Stephanie Smith-like tragedies borne of new E. coli strains with higher standards of corporate responsibility and more vigilant inspection by federal authorities.
Go one step beyond, however, and you will see we need to rethink our food. As long as we indulge our appetites for so much meat, hamburgers will be dangerous to our own health as well as that of the planet. Into the bargain, they will challenge any semblance of morality by fostering, and apparently condoning, the brutal treatment of our fellow creatures that their large-scale consumption inevitably requires.
I am not intending to indict meat consumption; We as Homo sapiens have long, perhaps always, included some meat in our diet. But in a world of some 7 billion human beings and modern food-production methods, our dietary patterns reverberate in ways they never did before. 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.
When you get to the meat of the matter, mutant germs in our food almost never have much to do with the innocently by-standing vegetables and fruits they tend to contaminate. They have everything to do with how we raise, and feed, the animals by which we feed ourselves. At least six good arguments for a greener diet have been made -- every super bug nurtured by modern animal husbandry adds another, as does the growing challenge of growing enough food for all concerned.
There is no doubt that opportunistic bacteria will continue to exploit the new environments we create by putting matter into the feed of cows, pigs and chickens that never belonged. Then when waste matter from those animals gets into fields of spinach, or sprouts, plants will be accomplices in the peril.
That's what's the matter. It's not about the sprouts.
Follow David Katz, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrDavidKatz