“The truth of the matter,” notes James Beard Award-winning writer Josh Ozersky in TIME this week, “is that when you eat food, you are generally eating living things. Every bite you take, no matter how hermetically sealed and thrice purified, is teeming with microbes. And so are you.” With the current hysteria over an E.coli bacteria outbreak in Germany, this is a timely reminder.
According to federal government statistics, today’s food supply is safer than ever before. But along with wild speculation about the source of an E.coli strain that has killed 30 so far, we’re seeing even more bizarre guesses about how the organism got to some Europeans’ plates.
An argument is emerging from England about how overuse of livestock antibiotics have supposedly made this strain of E.coli bacteria impossible to treat. This is, to put it nicely, cow manure. Some strains of E.coli, including this one, release potentially deadly “shiga toxins” when antibiotic medicines attack them. (The nasty symptoms can include rapid, fatal kidney failure.) For this reason, antibiotics are of no practical use against the strain that’s causing this week’s German uproar.
GOOD magazine’s Senior Editor is even blaming meat-eaters for (literally) “kill[ing] vegetarians” by putting germs into the food supply. (This may be the first public claim of “second-hand E.coli,” but we’re betting it won’t be the last.) Perhaps she’s unfamiliar with microbiologist Michael Doyle, who directs the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. Doyle told the Associated Press a few years ago that “The meat and poultry industry has made great strides. The produce industry has a long way to go to catch up.” [emphasis added]
And catch up they should. The current outbreak’s various potential villains have included Spanish cucumbers, Dutch beet sprouts, German tomatoes and lettuce, and (the apparent winner) native German vegetable sprouts. Washington Times deputy editorial page editor David Mastio notes that the source of these killer sprouts appears to be an organic farm in a part of Germany near where the victims ate—not in the Netherlands, as early media reports suggested. (Does that put “local” and “organic” fingerprints on the murder weapon? You decide.)
So what do we make of all of this, aside from feeling deep sympathy for the families of the unfortunate? This is a time to listen to experts, not activists. While anti-meat advocates fret about animal manure fertilizing their edamame, it’s worth asking if they have an alternative. (If you end animal agriculture, aren’t you crippling organic plant agriculture as well?)
For now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is practicing the sort of careful epidemiology that we should expect. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is counseling vigilance, but not an overreaction. Considering that everything we eat is essentially a living Petri dish—and we’ve managed to survive for millennia anyway—that seems about right to us.