In Germany, by June 7th, 2011, more than 370 people got sick, and 16 had died from E. coli infection, apparently caused by contamination of sprouts, a food usually associated with good eating and good health. It made me think about how we raise our food, both plants and animals. I spoke with Jeff Engel, MD, our state health director, last week. I was surprised that the source of the outbreak had not been identified at that time. He said the problem is more difficult than it may seem. When food is put on trucks to market, the sprouts aren’t always completely separate from other food, so cross-contamination is possible. That can make it hard to track the source.
In Nicholas Kristof‘s piece in the New York Times about food safety, he singled out North Carolina for its excessive use of antibiotics in livestock.
|Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column June 11th:“Perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of our agricultural system — I say this as an Oregon farmboy who once raised sheep, cattle and hogs — is the way antibiotics are recklessly stuffed into healthy animals to make them grow faster.””The Food and Drug Administration reported recently that 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to livestock, not humans. And 90 percent of the livestock antibiotics are administered in their food or water, typically to healthy animals to keep them from getting sick when they are confined in squalid and crowded conditions.””The single state of North Carolina uses more antibiotics for livestock than the entire United States uses for humans.”||News and Observer June 12th:“The budget approved by the legislature, led by Republicans for the first time in a century, eliminates the program as part of roughly $23 million in environmental program cuts that would chop more than 150 positions. All told, the department’s budget would be cut by 12 percent, more than double the cuts proposed by Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat.The legislative budget also would shift some operations to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is led by a Republican commissioner, a move some fear would change the focus from environmental protection to business enhancement.”||ESE Research Notes Vol 1, Issue 1, Spring 2001:“Flooding associated with natural disasters can cause widespread fecal contamination of both surface and groundwater supplies. This contamination poses microbial risks to human health, as waterborne disease outbreaks have been linked to fecal contamination from flood waters…”|
E. coli, antibiotics and budget cuts are inter-related. They reflect ways in which we humans are at risk from our food supply. Our policies and practices are the culprits. Faculty and students in our department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and colleagues in Epidemiology have been working on the E. coli problem for many years—where it is found, how to eradicate it from ground water and how to test for it efficiently, especially in areas without electricity and high-tech equipment (think post-hurricanes as well as developing countries). Kenan Professor Mark Sobsey is working on a simple plastic bag test for E. coli….“A series of simple fecal microbe tests (as reliable as current standard tests) that do not require local people administering them to have advanced training in environmental microbiology or water quality analysis.”
This is part of our focus on sustainable solutions to big problems. E. coli is a big problem. With further budget cuts to N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), we probably should prepare for more health problems. We could change some of our agricultural and environmental priorities, but I suspect we will not.
In spite of that, Happy Monday. Barbara