PETRUCCI: E. coli outbreak is tied closely to cows

How would you feel if someone took a crap on you and you were the one ostracized? 

On Nov. 20, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that it would investigate a multi-state outbreak of E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce. As of Nov. 26, 43 people have been infected across 12 states. This was the second case of E. coli contamination of romaine lettuce this year. The first outbreak announced in April was declared over in June.

The CDC and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are on the hunt for the source of the outbreak, which they establish as the farms where the first contaminated lettuce originated. In lieu of the recent E. coli outbreak causing such a stir, "lettuce" take a look at the birthplace of the E. coli strain implicated in outbreaks in general, and where the actual source of the outbreak occurred. 

Firstly, what is E. coli? E. coli — or Escherichia coli, as read on its birth certificate — is part of a large family of bacteria consisting of multiple strains, the majority of which are harmless and actually exist in the human digestive tract. The E. coli O157:H7 strain causes issues such as diarrhea, vomiting and even death — all of which become topics of concern during outbreaks. 

Secondly, from where does this strain originate? Two part answer. First, not in lettuce. Second, in cow intestines and cow feces. 

After a 1992 E. coli outbreak linked to the consumption of hamburgers served by the Jack in the Box restaurant chain, E. coli contamination was most often associated with beef. It was your classic case of E. coli spreading from cow intestines to meat, this meat mixing with other meat and producing E. coli-contaminated ground beef. After numerous attempts by the meatpacking industry to prevent the USDA from randomly testing for E. coli in ground beef, the problem was finally investigated. 

In 1999, the USDA approved radiation cleaning systems which zapped any sign of life from raw meat. This period of so-called reform reduced E. coli contamination in beef. Though the most recent outbreak focused our hatred toward lettuce, a beef recall was announced just three days prior to the lettuce outbreak.

Nonetheless, while beef contamination continued, E. coli began infecting the most innocent of produce. You have the 2006 and 2012 spinach contamination, 2011 strawberry affliction and 2012 contamination of poor alfalfa sprouts. If you have seen an alfalfa sprout, you know it is a tiny, thin bean with a tail, worthy of no more attention than a meager garnish.

While the O157:H7 E. coli strain exists in cow intestines and feces, the proximity of livestock farms to irrigation systems and runoff streams enable the spread of feces. Feces can pollute groundwater and contaminate fresh produce fields or water sources, if the infected water source is being used for what water sources are often used for: to water stuff. 

In the case of the first E. coli contamination of romaine lettuce this past spring, the source of the outbreak was traced to an irrigation canal in Yuma County, Arizona. Yet, even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has some trouble admitting the fact that the irrigation canal contamination was due to its proximity to an animal farm, as they disclosed in their final report that it was “unknown” how the irrigation canal became contaminated.

"A large animal feeding operation is nearby but no obvious route for contamination from this facility to the irrigation canal was identified. Other explanations are possible although the EA team found no evidence to support them,” according to the FDA.

So, if E. coli comes from cow feces and intestines, and the only possible explanation supported by evidence is the animal feeding operation, then how can we say the source of the contamination of the canal is “unknown”? 

The Food & Water Watch offers a service called Factory Farm Map, an interactive map that ranks the density of livestock farms in every state from none to extreme. Yuma County’s density of beef cattle is ranked as “extreme,” which constitutes any farm with more than 17,400 heads of beef cattle. It averaged a whopping 67,956 per site in 2012. The density of dairy cows was labeled “severe,” which constitutes between 2,100 and 4,200 cows per site — Yuma County averaged 2,688 the same year.

In the case of the current outbreak, the USDA has narrowed down the source of the first contaminated lettuce to six counties in California: Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Ventura. Half of the counties in question have a density of dairy cows rated “severe,” according to the Factory Farm Map.

It is important to locate more than just the site of the first contaminated lettuce, as the location of nearby animal farms is just as imperative. In the case of contaminated beef, the origin is clear: cows. In the case of contaminated lettuce the origin is similar: cows. 

Francesca Petrucci is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double majoring in journalism and media studies and political science and minoring in Spanish. Her column, "The Annoying Vegan Millennial," runs on alternate Tuesdays. 


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