The Link Between E. Coli in Spinach and Industrial Cattle

This month’s massive recalls of potentially infected spinach show how quickly and easily our nation’s produce supplies can become infected with E. coli. Right now, government investigators are focusing their search for the origin of the recent spinach outbreak on just nine farms in California’s Salinas Valley. But already, 23 states have reported E. coli cases related to spinach. How does infected spinach from a relatively small area find its way to salad bowls and dinner plates across half the country?The outbreak can spread quickly because agriculture has become highly centralized in the past few decades. Spinaches from different farms are mixed together in processing facilities along the production chain. During sorting, shipping, and handling, E. coli from tainted produce is exposed to produce from other farms and other regions.

The same sort of centralization contributed to the E. coli outbreaks in fast food beef that captured national attention back in the 1980s. At the time, meat processing was becoming centralized, too, in part because of increased demand from the burgeoning fast food industry.

There’s also another link between this outbreak and the beef industry. The E. coli that found its way into the spinach originally came from cow manure, perhaps by way of irrigation water. Normally, your stomach can kill any E. coli you eat, but the particular strain behind the recent spinach outbreak has evolved to survive in a highly acidic environment: the stomachs of grain-fed cows. Without grains, especially corn, cow stomachs are much less likely to harbor dangerous forms of E. coli.

Most industrial feedlots feed their cows grain up until the day of slaughter. A study shows that feeding them hay for just a week can reduce the amount of this particular strain of E. coli in their system by a factor of 1,000. Even better would be to get cows out of feedlots altogether and raise them on what nature intended – grass.

To learn more, check out a video UCS produced about the advantages of grass-fed beef.

Photo Credit: Enviornmental Health Perspectives.

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