Let’s Talk E. coli — Again

Where E. coli really comes from; how to stop it


Last week America heard more news out of Atlanta and the Center for Disease Control about another deadly E. coli outbreak. They say this time that it’s a different strain of Escherichia coli, one labeled O145. Usually CDC blames a serotype named O157:H7 but this time O145 is getting the headlines. What’s good about that is that the American public may finally realize not all E. coli is the same and that the most dangerous varieties are the unintended consequence of human hubris.

It’s important to know that usually, E. coli is natural, beneficial bacteria that live harmlessly inside all of us. It exists primarily in the gut of warm-blooded animals and for humans, that’s a good thing because it helps us source nutrients and actually manufactures vitamin K. Without E. coli we would find it difficult to live a healthy life. But like so many things, human actions managed to muck it up.

The kind of E. coli that makes us sick — sometimes very sick — is one that is acid-resistant. That trait is key and here’s why. If we ingest a bunch of normal E. coli with a meal, it’ll mostly be killed in our highly acidic stomach juices. But not the acid-resistant kind like the infamous and pathogenic strain labeled O157:H7. Strains like that, including O145, pass right through stomach acid and into the intestine where they make us sick. In order to solve the problem of E. coli strains that make us sick, we should be answering the question, where did this kind of E. coli originate? And what kinds of human actions foster its growth?

The Smoking Gut With E. coli, it ain’t the tomatoes. It ain’t the lettuce. It’s the beef. Yes, E. coli may be found on produce but it doesn’t thrive there and it had to come from somewhere. There was not one, single case of E. coli O157:H7 illness in the United States until 1982, even though E. coli was discovered in 1885 by Theodor Escherich. So what caused deadly O157:H7 E. coli to emerge and become so prevalent? The short answer: our obsessive craving for cheap, ubiquitous beef.

The livestock industry thrives with one goal in mind: profit. To fatten a cow fast enough to slaughter at record pace and at record profits, the industry came up with a simple solution: Pack those animals in densely populated conditions and feed them fattening food. History shows us, dense populations and unhealthy food lead to one thing: sickness.

Cheap food for cattle arrived with the explosion of government corn subsidies in the 1970s. (Thank you, Earl Butz.) Corn and corn waste products, including the dregs of the ethanol industry, remain the most cost-effective junk food we can feed cattle to make ‘em fat, fast. There’s only one problem. Cows aren’t designed to eat corn. They’re designed to eat grass.

When cows eat too much corn, it gives them acid indigestion. Ask any cattleman. So what do we do? We spend tax dollars to reimburse businessmen to grow corn to feed to cows so we can have cheap burgers. An unintended consequence of feeding corn to cows is that their stomach becomes very acidic. This acidic environment kills off most E. coli in a cow’s gut — but not all. The surviving E. coli are the ones that could tolerate acidic environments like our stomach. Those survivors are acid-resistant. They get named E. coli O157:H7. That we have managed to take a beneficial bacterium and turn it into a deadly pathogen is typical of our tinkering with nature, thinking that we know a better way. We figure that so-called better way is justified because it appears to result in higher short-term profits.

Eat less meat. I was shocked when I saw that slogan on the website of one of the leading natural meat providers in the United States, Applegate Farms. Their philosophy page went on to say, “It is our firm belief that everyone should eat less meat, but of a higher quality…” After speaking on the phone with Applegate’s co-founder, Chris Ely, back in 2007, I found that the company really means that. And it makes sense. Americans have developed a meat-centric diet and we’re paying the price, environmentally, economically and health-wise. Adopting a diet that consumes less meat but higher quality meat will solve a lot of problems and the proliferation of pathogenic E. coli is one of them.

Numerous studies — even one done here in our beef-loving state of Nebraska — show that cattle fed exclusively on grass have up to 80 percent less of the pathogenic strain of E. coli than cattle fattened on grain. Put simply: grass fed beef equals 80 percent less E. coli population in that cow going to slaughter. So it’s easy to see that our system of industrial livestock production that is designed to supersize cattle superfast is supersizing our chances of running across dangerous strains of E. coli. Based on that observation, beef with lower E. coli populations has to be considered higher quality, wouldn’t you say?

Whenever the CDC comes up with what they blame as the “source” of the current E. coli outbreak, remember, if they say it’s been traced to some fruit, vegetable or lettuce, the truth goes much deeper than that. The meat of the matter is that what’s the matter is the meat.

Be well.

Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information, not as medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at www.HeartlandHealing.com


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