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E-Coli and Product Safety Problems

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I have been innvolved in litigation and trial for the past several days and only recently discovered that this nation has a problem with an outbreak of E.Coli bacteria and tainted spinach. According to the New York Times discussion of the E.Coli problems which have resulted in illness of at least 100 people:

E. coli is abundant in the digestive systems of healthy cattle and humans, and if your potato salad happened to be carrying the average E. coli, the acid in your gut is usually enough to kill it.

But the villain in this outbreak, E. coli O157:H7, is far scarier, at least for humans. Your stomach juices are not strong enough to kill this acid-loving bacterium, which is why it’s more likely than other members of the E. coli family to produce abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and, in rare cases, fatal kidney failure.

Where does this particularly virulent strain come from? It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms.

The source of the problem can be further traced to the grain diet American farmers are feeding cows. According to the Times, simply switching from hay to grain as a source of feed could minimize the risk of an E.Coli bacteria outbreak substantially:

“When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.”

The reference to O157 relates to the particularly nasty strain of E.Coli apparently causing illness.

Perhaps we should not only refrain from eating spinach these days but we should also hope that feed changes in cows can minimize the risk of a continued outbreak in the future. As cow manure finds its way into farmland irrigation, E.Coli finds its way into farmland spinach. Short term solutions require different sources of irrigation for spinach farmers. Longer term, it appears that beef and dairy must simply make simple dietary modifications to minimize risk of further harm. Government mandated change may not be appropriate here. I believe that the private sector use of litigation tools, incentives and public relations pressure or other high profile resources could provide a vehicle for change to prevent future E.Coli problems. Can you imagine losing a loved one because a dairy or beef farmer decided not to switch a cow’s diet from grain to hay? If such a tragedy were to occur, justice requires investigation and accountability.