E. Coli and Its Ecological Factors

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This article was published by PristinePlanet.com Newsletter, issue #24, 2006-10-10.

Every year, a large number of Americans come into direct dietary contact with E. coli, a bacterium that can easily make people sick when it is consumed, and can prove fatal for some of those victims. We should not be astonished to learn that this dietary contact takes place, considering that all of us, without exception, are in direct internal contact with E. coli on a daily basis. That is because every one of our bowel movements contains billions of E. coli bacteria. In turn, that is one reason — or perhaps billions of reasons — why it is so critical for people to thoroughly wash their hands after using the restroom, particularly for workers in the foodservice industries.

Escherichia coli, usually referred to by its abbreviated name, is a bacterium that has hundreds of strains, most of which are generally harmless to most healthy individuals. Countless such bacteria are found throughout the intestines of humans and cows, and spreads within both species in the same manner, namely, contamination through fecal matter. However, there is an especially virulent strain known as O157:H7, which is the culprit behind most life-threatening and publicized outbreaks in the United States, including the contaminated spinach that has killed and sickened numerous Americans during 2006.

Humans are easily able to prevent the spread of O157:H7 and its more benign cousins, through diligent hygienE. Cows, on the other hand (or hoof), do not have the intellectual capacity for thorough cleaning after a bowel movement — not unlike some of their less intelligent human counterparts. Moreover, the cows found in the typical commercial feedlot are not cleaned after they have made another "cow chip". Even worse, the tons of waste matter is usually poorly disposed of, if at all, in huge cesspools. This results in cows standing in the waste ankle-deep, and it splattering up, thus practically guaranteeing that E. coli will quickly spread among a herd that can number in the thousands. Such airborne bacteria can get onto udders and thereby into milk, as well as get into the cow's intestines and thereby onto meat as part of the slaughtering process. In addition, waste that is not composted can infect manure and thus the crops grown using that manure. It can also leach into the water system, which is one reason why environmentalists point to these huge feedlots as a major risk to the health of our potable water supplies.

Raising cattle using more environmentally responsible methods, would help to dramatically reduce the spread and impact of E. coli. Free-range cattle typically have lower levels of E. coli versus their counterparts locked into small and filthy pens, partly because the former have far less contact with each other's waste. Moreover, grass-fed cattle have lower levels of E. coli O157:H7 versus their corn-fed counterparts on huge feedlots, partly because the corn increases the acidity of their digestive juices, which promotes O157:H7.

Moving from the production phase to the consumption phase, ecologically sensibility offers further rewards. Some consumers may assume that organic foods would be higher in E. coli, including the more dangerous strains. But actually the opposite may be true, because the majority of organic farmers compost the manure, which kills most E. coli. In addition, certified organic farmers are not allowed to use raw manure for 90 days prior to the harvest of food intended for human consumption.

Most Americans eating hamburgers in fast food restaurants, may give little thought as to how the cheap beef used in producing those burgers can have the ultimate consequence of making the lettuce in the hamburger quite expensive from a health standpoint. Some people shoving those supersized time bombs into their mouths, may end up paying the ultimate price — further down the road, from cardiac disease, or much earlier, from E. coli. This illustrates how life at even the smallest scale can have a tremendous impact upon human life.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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