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Don't Blame Industrial Farms for E.Coli: Poor Management is the Culprit, not Feedlot Cattle

03.jun.00, Douglas Powell, National Post (Financial Post: Editorial), D11

In October, 1996, 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Denver drank Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, Calif. She died several weeks later; 64 others became ill in several western U.S. states and British Columbia after drinking the same juices, which contained unpasteurized apple cider --and E. coli O157:H7. Investigators believe that some of the apples used to make the cider may have been insufficiently washed after falling to the ground and coming into contact with deer feces.

The Odwalla outbreak, and dozens of others, illustrate some basics about E. coli O157:H7 that have gotten lost in the rush --especially by some virulent columnists --to describe the Walkerton outbreak through the filters of political preference. E. coli O157:H7 is part of nature, a natural world that will change and adapt as humans alter their version of the world. But for all the railing against so-called factory or industrial farming, the links remain tenuous. In fact, such assumptions and finger-pointing can actually be dangerous as individuals become less vigilant, assuming that such problems only happen to other people in other places.

Last fall, for example, 90 children were felled by E. coli O157:H7 at the Western Fall Fair in London, Ont. The source? A goat at a petting zoo, hardly an intensively farmed animal. Surveillance studies have concluded that 1% to 10% of ruminants --cattle, sheep, goats, deer --carry E. coli O157:H7 at any one time. Further, most studies show the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in feedlot cattle is similar to that in range cattle. But the bottom line is the same: O157 occurs at the same frequency in feedlot cattle and in Bambi roaming through the forest. Of course, sheer numbers of animals will make one risk greater, but vigilance is increased proportionally. In 1982, E. coli O157:H7 was first identified as a cause of human disease after 47 people in White City, Ore., and Traverse City, Mich., developed severe stomach disorders after eating McDonald's hamburgers. Last year, some 1,400 Canadians were felled by E. coli O157:H7. Although no Canadian figures are available for deaths, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there are some 20,000 cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection annually in the United States, with 250 to 500 deaths. E. coli O157:H7 belongs to a
family of bacteria called verotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC), first recognized by researchers at Health Canada in 1977. Twenty years later, more than 200 hundred different serotypes --members of the same bacterial strain but with different proteins on their outer shell -- have been isolated from humans, foods and other sources. About 150 of these have been isolated from humans, and more than 50 have been shown to cause disease in humans. For example, a four-year-old girl died, and 23 other children developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), in Australia in early 1995, after eating mettwurst, an uncooked, semi-dry fermented sausage, contaminated with E. coli 0111.

Cases of VTEC illness increase in summer months, in what public health officials often attribute to undercooking hamburgers on the barbecue -- hence the term "hamburger disease." The hamburger connection was further solidified when E. coli O157:H7 was thrust to national prominence after 734 were stricken and four children were killed in a January, 1993 outbreak linked to undercooked hamburgers served at the Jack-in-the-Box fast food chain in the Pacific Northwest. Undercooked hamburger remains a risk factor, but several new risks have been discovered. Lettuce, sprouts, cabbage and water have all been recently identified as vehicles for O157.

Manure from a percentage of cows contains E. coli O157:H7; so does waste from a percentage of deer, goats, other ruminants and humans. Farmers know this. Health officials know this. Changes in diet, feeding procedures and transportation conditions are all being examined. And, once in the plant, techniques such as steam pasteurization or acid rinses are being evaluated to reduce the bacterial numbers in raw meat. Yet because such interventions can only reduce rather than eliminate risk, management strategies are in place to further reduce risk. Farmers in Ontario are recognized as global leaders in land stewardship for their adoption of environmental farm plans and nutrient management plans. But not all participate. With 500 animals or 50, there are good and bad producers.

Incidentally, the Ontario agriculture ministry defines an intensive operation as one with more than 150 animals; there is one such operation in the Walkerton area. This is not Alberta or Iowa, where different land allows different kinds of production. This is Ontario, where production must fit the available resources.

The simplest and most cost-effective management strategy involves chlorine. As revealed yesterday, chlorine was not functioning in well 7 in Walkerton from May 15 to May 17. And without second-guessing the motives of officials in Walkerton, it appears a common engineering and risk phenomenon was at work: Individuals ignored safety; it always happens elsewhere. In the on-farm food safety programs designed and implemented by my lab, we always survey farmers for the greatest risk in the food they eat. The answer? Imports. Always someone else. That means extra attention needs to be focused on the potential for biological risk around us. The large producers of salad-in-a-bag and other fresh fruits and vegetables have chlorine monitors that set off alarms when effective levels drop. Walkerton is now installing chlorine monitors in its water system.

In the fall of 1998, I accompanied one of my four daughters on a kindergarten trip to the farm. After petting the animals and touring the crops --I questioned the fresh manure on the strawberries --we were assured that all the food produced was natural. We then returned for unpasteurized apple cider. The host served the cider in a coffee urn, heated, so my concern about it being unpasteurized was abated. I asked: "Did you serve the cider heated because you heard about other outbreaks and were concerned about liability?" She responded, "No. The stuff starts to smell when it's a few weeks old and heating removes the smell."

Most outbreaks of food- or water-borne disease are not acts of God. They follow a series of events and management failures that usually lead investigators to comment: "Why didn't this happen earlier?"