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Our children should not be poisoned by our food

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted December 17, 2007

Buying "organic" or "natural" or "local" meats won't protect us from the deadly food-borne bacteria E. coli O157.  The life-threatening bacterium sickens thousands of people every year, and kills hundreds—too many of them children.

A restaurant owner recently wrote the Minneapolis Star-Tribune claiming that if we raised our cattle on pasture instead of in feedlots, and bought them from local producers, the E. coli problem in red meat would disappear. 

"Not true," says a University of Minnesota physician. Dr. Michael Osterholm says the restaurant owner "would understand this issue in an entirely different light if he had been with me when I had to explain to distraught parents that their young daughter's death was due to eating an undercooked hamburger, prepared by them, and the E. coli that caused her illness came from meat from a cow raised only on pasture grass and processed by the local meat packer.  The cow also came from Grandpa's farm down the road."

Dr. Osterholm says the life-threatening O157 bacteria are found among all cattle, grass-fed or feedlot.  He points to a recent Minnesota Department of Health study which found that eating red meat from local farms was a significant risk factor for E. coli infection.

"In the sterile surgical suites of our ultra-modern hospitals, almost 3 percent of all ‘clean surgeries' still result in a post-surgical site infection.  This means bacterial contamination from the patient's skin or from someone else on the surgical tem infected that incision.  If surgeons can't do any better under ideal sterile conditions, how can we expect a meat processing plant to guarantee that the carcass coming off the line doesn't have some hidden microscopic E. coli? . . . we can only hope that the consumer also will take responsibility for never serving undercooked ground beef or any inadequately cooked meat or poultry product."

The restaurateur quoted a 1998 paper from Cornell University, which studied only three cows—and never checked any of them for the O157 bacteria!  Too much of our public food policy is being built on such "smoke and mirrors," as some farmers and food marketers try to justify higher price premiums. 

"In the end," says Dr. Osterholm, "there is only one absolute measure to address this issue: food irradiation. This process, which primarily uses an electron gun—just like the one in your TV, except at higher power—that turns electricity into an energy that safely and cost-effectively kills bacteria like E. coli.  It does so without significantly changing the flavor, color or nutrient content of the food.  Routine irradiation of meat and poultry would do for those food commodities what pasteurization did for milk: make them safe."

Thank you, Dr. Osterholm. 

Food irradiation is the most widely studied food safety measure in history, and has been for 30 years.  It's been approved and recommended by U.S. physicians, the World Health Organization, and virtually every significant group of health professionals across the planet. The Food and Drug Administration has known since 1982 that O157 was a threat to American lives, but it didn't approve irradiation for meat until 1997.  Even now, FDA requires that irradiated foods carry a warning label, and the "radura" symbol. So far, both stores and consumers have shied away from the irradiated products—even though the irradiation helps keep the products fresher, longer.    

Don't let the people who market those high-priced organic and natural food products pretend they can protect us from deadly bacteria. The longer we support the illusion that we can protect our families by paying more at the checkout counter, the more victims E. coli 0157 will claim. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for the Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State.


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