How Industrial Agriculture Promotes Foodborne Illness and Makes Us Sick

A steadily expanding†E. coli outbreak connected with romaine lettuce picked in the Yuma, Arizona, region has many looking warily at their salads, but the incident highlights a†larger issue.†Certain practices associated with industrial agriculture can increase the risk of foodborne illnesses — and even outright promote them.

Consumers need to be aware of these issues so they can make informed decisions about what they eat, and where they buy it.

Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, Cyclospora,†hepatitis and some other†infectious agents†have all been associated with foodborne illnesses involving lettuce, spinach, eggs, sprouts, cheese, meats, melons and more. Why are some foods more likely to experience contamination than others — and how can you protect yourself?

Meat remains a lead suspect, but leafy greens and other foods consumed raw can be a big concern too. That’s because we don’t cook them — a step that would kill many pathogens. Not everyone is great about washing produce, either. Between the moment†fruits and veggies are†picked and when they land on our plates, these foods may go through many hands — including those of people who aren’t feeling well, but came to work anyway.

Sick food service workers in particular are a concern for some advocates, who note that people feel like they can’t miss a day of work, so they show up anyway. Even if they’re washing their hands and trying to be careful, they may be excreting droplets of infectious material in the kitchen and on the floor of a restaurant. That’s one reason paid sick leave is a popular cause!

Another†issue is cross-contamination, which can happen in several ways.†E. colinaturally lives in the intestinal tracts of animals — and, therefore, in their waste products as well.†This†means that fields treated with improperly cured manure, or exposed to raw manure runoff, can†become contaminated. Similarly, the practice of pooling meat from numerous sources can spread contamination — a company making ground beef with the products of multiple farms can accidentally introduce†E. coliinto meat that wasn’t contaminated.

Sometimes even the things we do to prevent disease can cause problems. Some farms treat produce with chlorine†in an attempt to†kill infectious bacteria, but researchers found “viable but nonculturable” bacteria on treated produce. In other words, infectious bacteria were there, but they couldn’t be identified with food safety testing. Yikes.

Zoonoses, diseases that pass from animals to humans, are also getting worse. That’s in part because industrial agriculture crams animals together into spaces far too small for their needs, encouraging the development of aggressive infections. And then we treat them with antibiotics and other drugs, sometimes contributing to antibiotic resistance in the process. The volume and scale of farming means that an infection on a ranch, feedlot or slaughterhouse can quickly jump to hundreds or thousands of animals.

Buying organic won’t help — that much. Organic regulations don’t speak to food safety, just to farming practices. So while organic food shouldn’t contain antibiotics†or a variety of agricultural chemicals that can contribute to food-borne illness, it’s†not immune to this risk. Industrial-scale production can encourage cross-contamination, and organic food may end up stored in facilities that house harmful bacteria and other infectious agents.†Cross-contamination via manure and other unwelcome visitors can also be an issue.

Protecting yourself from food-borne illness starts with keeping track of outbreaks and recalls. You can further protect yourself by buying from small, local farms and stores — their products don’t sit around as long, and they’re less likely to be contaminated by way of being handled, stored and transported with products pooled from a larger growing or ranching region.

Store food at recommended temperatures and minimize cross-contamination by wrapping and storing meat and cheese well. Make sure to thoroughly wash†and cook the foods you consume.

You also have the power to lobby for better conditions on farms for everyone: fair pay for workers, tighter controls on animal welfare, better food safety standards for handling and storage. You can advocate with your state and federal lawmakers to add regulations to agriculture-related bills, targeting specific areas of concern like antibiotics overuse and crowded conditions for farm animals.

Photo Credit: USDA/Flickr

70 comments

Angela J
Angela J8 days ago

Thanks

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Cindy S
Cindy S13 days ago

thanks

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Amanda McConnell
Amanda M22 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda McConnell
Amanda M22 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Leo C
Leo C23 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Maria P
Maria P27 days ago

thanks

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Janis K
Janis K27 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Cindy S
Past Member 29 days ago

go vegan

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Tania N
Tania N29 days ago

Thank you

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Tania N
Tania N29 days ago

Thank you

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