How E. Coli Gets in Our Food

The CEO of Chipotle apologized earlier this week for an E. coli outbreak linked to his restaurant that affected more than 50 people across the country. On national television, he insisted that the Mexican fast-food they serve is now safe after the company ran thousands of tests.

But how did the bacteria, which has also been found in raw cookie dough, bean sprouts and ground beef, get there in the first place?

Overview

Escherichia coli lives in human and other animals’ intestines, and most strains are harmless. Six types cause illnesses. Very young children and the elderly are the most likely to be hit the worst—the infection for most people clears up in a week, but sometimes it gets life-threatening for those with less defenses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the main source of human illness is cattle. The infection starts when people ingest small amounts of feces, whether from drinking non-disinfected water or eating food prepared by someone who didn’t wash their hands, among other causes.

The illness-causing bacteria makes up a large chunk of the one in six Americans a year who get sick from their food. (About 3,000 total die each year.) Those numbers are lower than in the past because of improvements in food safety.

One Large Cause

Many credit industrial agriculture as a factor in spreading harmful E. coli. As Food & Water Watch notes, cattle are supposed to eat grass, but are often stuck in feedlots eating corn and soybeans during the last months of their lives to make their meat more tender.

A Cornell study shows the E. coli in cattle poop is significantly higher when grain compared to hay. So, the affected excrement can get into the meat when the cattle goes to slaughter.

As Craig Hedberg at University of Minnesota School of Public Health tells CBS Minnesota, “When you convert a cow into hamburgers, it’s a messy process. When cattle come into a plant, they may have dried manure on their hide.”

“Vegetables can also be contaminated by E. coli if manure is used to fertilize crops without composting it first, or if water used to irrigate or clean the crops contains animal waste,” continues Mel of the Food and Water Watch. Granted some of those cases are from wild animals, like deer droppings spread to Oregon strawberry fields in 2011, not necessarily farmed ones.

Feces can pollute water nearby beyond irrigation systems as well. A North Carolina study, for instance, found nearly half a county’s water samples around factory farming operations had unsafe levels of animal fecal bacteria counts. A quarter of those were from E. coli.

Cattle aren’t the only culprits. As Discover Magazine notes, antibiotics overused in industrial chicken and turkey feed leads to stronger E. coli in the birds’ systems. Some estimate that as much as “75 percent of poultry is contaminated with E. coli, much of it resistant to antibiotic drugs.”

Prevention

To prevent yourself from getting sick, stick to what your parents always insisted: Wash your hands after using the bathroom and before prepping food. The CDC also recommends cooking meats thoroughly and washing kitchen implements that have touched raw meat to prevent cross-contamination, as well as avoiding raw and unpasteurized milk and unpasteurized juices. And avoid swallowing water when swimming.

Avoiding meat, or at least that that has been factory-farmed, confronts the problem on a larger scale. Support rules like the Food Safety Modernization Act to revolutionize the way our food is produced by leaving a public comment on pending regulations.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

125 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S9 months ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S9 months ago

thanks

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Jim V
Jim V9 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Jim V
Jim V9 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud2 years ago

Disgusting. Tyfs.

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Teresa W.
Teresa W2 years ago

Nimue is right.

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Effra W.
Effra W2 years ago

Go vegan. It's not as difficult as you might think. Be part of the solution. And wash your veg and hands well.

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Nimue Pendragon

STOP EATING ANIMALS!!!!

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