An outbreak of a toxic, possibly novel, strain of E. coli known as O104:H4 continues to rage in Germany. At last count, more than 1,800 people have been infected and 19 have died — and unusually, young women rather than children or the elderly have been hit the hardest. So far, the outbreak seems confined to Germany — all but two of the cases outside Germany have been linked to people who had traveled there. These numbers make this the most deadly E. coli outbreak ever. European government officials have still been unable to trace the source of the contamination, although raw vegetables are the leading suspect.
This tragedy is exacerbated by weaknesses in Europe’s food-safety infrastructure. In essence, Europe lacks a version of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means it can be slow to respond to outbreaks and doesn’t have the same institutional tools we do to track and isolate the source of outbreaks like this one.
But lest we get complacent and assure ourselves that such an outbreak couldn’t happen here, it’s worth keeping in mind that this particular strain is part of a class known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli. While this class can be very dangerous, in the U.S. only one strain in this class — O157 — is considered an “adulterant” and officially regulated by the FDA USDA. What this means is that many very toxic, very dangerous forms of E. coli are not illegal in food and the FDA USDA does not require food processors to test for them.
Another point worth making is that, though vegetables are thought to be the source of the current German outbreak, there is only one way E. coli gets on veggies. And it’s sh*tty. Get it? Now, there are any number of stages in the production process when vegetables can be contaminated: on fields, in processing facilities, in transit, or in stores. But the E. coli itself — regardless of when it got on the vegetables — likely came from the guts of factory-farmed cows or pigs fed routine doses of antibiotics. Despite the scientific evidence, the livestock industry continues to reject this claim.
What’s just as controversial, however, is the exact path that E. coli takes to get on to vegetables. By and large, the industry wants you to believe E. coli contaminates field crops through wild animals. In fact, the USDA and the produce lobby went to great lengths during the E. coli spinach outbreak in 2006 to find hard evidence that wild animals were to blame, rather than agricultural sources such as water contaminated by effluent from nearby livestock factory farms or even manures in fertilizer. They failed.
That failure did not, however, stop large-scale California produce growers from developing the so-called California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), which created a voluntary set of guidelines focused in part on “sterilizing” the area around produce farms in order to ensure wild animals could not intrude and contaminate crops. The LGMA was virtually impossible for small, organic growers to follow — and if you attempt a true polycultural operation where animals and crops happily coexist, it is literally impossible to follow.
Despite the fact that many experts question this plan, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has just released a draft version of its own LGMA, to bring this kind of approach to produce growers across the country. But not only are the terms of the national LGMA controversial among advocates of sustainable and organic agriculture, the very fact of AMS involvement is deeply problematic.
The AMS, as its name suggests, is a marketing service. Yet it is creating what is very clearly intended to be a food-safety protocol. For further details on the sorry history of the how the AMS went about developing its new leafy green rule, see this fantastic three-part series by Elanor Starmer in The Ethicurean.
So, why is the AMS doing this and not the USDA’s official food-safety arm, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)? Because the FSIS does not have the authority to keep produce safe — it’s the job of the FDA to do that. And it’s not as if the FDA is lying down on the job — leafy-green guidelines were included in the recently passed food-safety reform measure. The clear implication of this new USDA leafy-green rule is that, at a time when the threat of superbug contamination of our food mounts with every passing day, the USDA and FDA are locked in a jurisdictional battle as to who is best equipped to protect our food system.
The larger point here is that we are simply unprepared now that the Age of the Superbugs is clearly upon us. Indeed, another novel superbug — a new, toxic version of MRSA was just found in British milk. The German E. coli outbreak is merely a harbinger of a possible scary food-safety future. New strains of killer bacteria — bacteria that seem likely to have evolved in the guts of factory-farmed animals who have been routinely fed low doses of antibiotics — are arriving at what appears to be an accelerated rate. What we need is a renewed commitment from our regulators (not to mention sufficient funding for them) to search for the causes, whatever they may be — even if the very structure of our industrialized, drugged-up style of livestock production is to blame.