A raw deal for cucumbers
Did nuclear power kill any Germans prior to the announcement last week of their plans to phase out nuclear power? No.
But Germans are dying now and it’s a safe bet that the cause will not be phased out. It probably won’t even be identified in a generic way, let alone named and shamed and prosecuted. Is it cucumbers? Or cabbage or lettuce or bean sprouts?
“Death toll from E-coli cucumber outbreak reaches 16.” shouted the Sydney Morning Herald over a picture of goats chomping on a mountain of dumped cucumber.
The toll, which is now slowly declining, includes 22 deaths,1,200 people hospitalised in six countries centred on Germany with 373 having acute kidney failures. Spanish cucumbers were the initial knee-jerk suspect but while they have been declared innocent, bans on various fruit and vegetables are ricocheting around the planet with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food being dumped as health officials searched for the culprit.
Governments get lots of kudos from local producers for banning imports for a while and outbreaks like this are a great excuse.
Cucumbers don’t get E-coli infections. No fruit and vegetables get E-coli infections. You have to be an animal to get an E-coli infection. All the health officials understand this so well that they probably just forget to mention it to journalists and most specialist journalists understand the science anyway. But anybody who saw last Friday’s SBS nightly news report or read the SMH story quoted above would think that fruit and vegetables can be the origin of these problems.
I wouldn’t be surprised if cucumber sales drop here whereever a clear “Product of Australia” sticker isn’t on the shelf.
E-coli comes from human or animal guts. So it’s in faeces. The origin of this outbreak is some factory farm doing what they all do, spewing out mountains of shit. The current search is not for the origin of the outbreak, but to the final delivery vehicle. The hope, of course, is that this will lead back to the culprit.
With traditional farming, faeces is deposited in fields and infectious bacteria and viruses die after hours or perhaps days depending on temperature and moisture. But concentrated in vast quantities as feedlot faecal-slurry, E-coli can live substantially longer. Use faeces as manure without treating or composting it for long enough to kill all the nasties and people get sick. But they don’t usually die.
Something has been happening on factory farms around the world over the last half century which is leading to new and nastier bugs. Some 75 per cent of new diseases come from animals, and a 2005 study by Mark Woolhouse of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Edinburgh is just one of many that has put changing agricultural practices as the number one driving force.
Factory farming is not only putting animals under more stress and compromising their immune systems; factory farms act as bioreactors to generate new strains of both bacterial and viral bugs. As a virus, for example is spread through the bodies of thousands of chickens in a broiler shed, it mutates (changes) and can become more dangerous.
In 1999 scientists identified a new strain of flu in a piggery in North Carolina. That flu mixed and matched with other strains for over a decade before emerging as swine flu. The families of the 3,330 people it killed would probably disagree, but swine flu was a near miss, things could have been far worse. We have had a few near misses in the past 15 years.
If the world’s E-coli experts eventually trace the origin of this deadly strain, you can bet they’ll find a factory farm at the source.
But there is now speculation from Bernt Schottdorf, a medical analyst in Germany, that factory farms have found a new way to generate novel disease causing organisms. Biogas. Faecal-slurry generates methane. Catch the methane and you have a source of energy. This has been a much hyped source of so-called green energy for some time now.
It’s great fun until the shit gets mixed with people’s drinking water and people die. Leaving shit to ferment in a pond, pit or big tank is a wonderful way of making new kinds of bacteria. Make enough new types and some will be really, really dangerous.
But even before factory farms thought of generating energy from shit, it was causing problems. Smithfield foods in the US was fined $12.6 million for violations to the Clean Water Act in the US after millions of gallons of shit leaked into rivers in multiple offences.
A pipe is a cheap way to transfer new organisms from the river to a crop and from there to the world.
As with swine flu, there is a vast research and regulatory infrastructure swinging into action as laboratories and health officials start working long hours chasing the source of this outbreak. This is a tough ask in countries like the US with a massive research base. It is even worse in developing countries which now have the majority of the world’s factory farms but substantially less monitoring capacity.
Effectively, this global health infrastructure is a huge subsidy to the factory farming industry spawning these new diseases.
But cucumbers and other plant foods will still get stuck with the blame as delivery agents.
Lastly, compare the situation with iodine-131 in milk as a result of the nuclear explosion back in 1986 at Chernobyl. When children got cancer, nobody blamed milk. Nobody blamed dairy farmers. The rightful cause was identified from day one.
But this E-coli outbreak will survive in the minds of many as a cucumber problem and the real culprits, the factory farms and the people who profit from them, will get off free.
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