A Food Safety Double Standard

On August 3rd of this year, armed government agents, including representatives from the FDA, FBI, California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, LA County Health Department, and the LAPD, raided Rawesome Foods, a raw food co-op in Venice Beach, California, that was accused of selling raw milk without a license. The agents confiscated cash, computers and files, and carted away or destroyed $70,000 worth of farm-fresh produce. Surveillance cameras show that Rawesome volunteers were lined up against a wall and frisked at gunpoint. The agents arrested volunteer and organizer James Stewart, among others, whose bail was initially set at $123,000 – far more than is typical for alleged drug dealers, child molesters and killers.  And yet, in its 12-year history, Rawesome had never been linked to a single case of foodborne illness, despite the fact that its products included not just raw cow milk but raw goat, sheep, and camel milk, and even unwashed eggs.  In fact, Rawesome had even been raided a year prior so that its products could be randomly inspected – but no dangerous contamination was found. It appears that the authorities spent the interim trying find another justification for shutting down the co-op, even having its agents pose as members for a year to seek out evidence of wrongdoing.

While it’s true that Rawesome did not have a license, the coop did not operate as a purveyor of milk nor a business in the strict sense. All members were volunteers and all the money that was paid for the products went directly to the farmers to cover their costs. Essentially, the members were pooling their money to buy from farmers more efficiently, and each member was required to sign a waiver acknowledging the potential pathogenic content of raw foods.  The same waiver also guaranteed the organic and grass-fed diet  and free-range lifestyle of the cows, goats, chickens etc.  By signing the waiver, the members were taking responsibility for their personal, health-motivated, food choices. Although raw milk can be sold legally in California, it is so tightly regulated that only one or two companies can afford to offer it, and do not provide as much variety as is available when going directly to trustworthy farms. As can be seen from the case of Rawesome, the government is ready and waiting to devote its resources to prosecuting any apparent deviation from the already strict rules.

Meanwhile, also on August 3rd, Cargill, Inc., an agricultural company that is the largest privately held corporation in the US in terms of revenue, and which supplies about 22% of the domestic meat market, announced that it would be recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey due to contamination with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella bacteria. The recall was in response to an announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the contaminated turkey had been traced to Cargill’s Arkansas processing plant. At the time of the recall, the turkey had been linked to 77 cases of illness, 22 hospitalizations, and one death. More recently, the number of illnesses has been reported at 129 with 33 hospitalizations, all across 34 states. Since the CDC estimates that Salmonella cases occur on the order of 30 times the number reported, that means as many as 4,000 people were sickened by Cargill’s food product. Cargill’s meat (none of which can be identified in stores; most of the contaminated turkey was sold under a brand called Honeysuckle White, with the name Cargill nowhere to be found), it should be noted, has a history of contamination going back decades.

How did this happen? Antibiotic-resistant pathogens develop when antibiotics are routinely used on factory farmed animals that are constantly sick due to the toxic environment in which they are raised.  It’s inevitable that resistant strains will develop and wind up in the meat we eat from these “farms.”  Of course, given that the government is so zealous and meticulous in protecting our nation’s health that they will even locate and shut down the smallest raw milk co-ops (most of which serve a few hundred fully informed people at most) just because of the mere possibility of contamination, they would be even more quick to crack down on a business producing factory farmed meat that actually hospitalized hundreds of unsuspecting people and sickened thousands more, right? On the contrary. As an article in the Wall Street Journal reported,

 

Federal officials said they turned up a dangerous form of salmonella at a Cargill Inc. turkey plant last year, and then four times this year at stores selling the Cargill turkey, but didn’t move for a recall until an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others.

 

As for the recall, it was only a request on the USDA’s part, not an order, as the USDA lacks the legal authority to force a recall.  Cargill’s was voluntary and, once the truth was out, aimed at salvaging their image; most of the recalled meat dated back as far as March and had already been consumed. But the most amazing part is that Cargill’s lack of quality control wasn’t even against the law. Federal regulations permit up to 49% of all samples tested at poultry plants to be contaminated with salmonella, and since new antibiotic-resistant strains pop up all the time, thanks to factory farming methods, the government doesn’t have bans on all of them. In fact, only one food-borne pathogen, E.coli O157, is classified as an “adulterant” by the government, meaning it’s against the law for it to be present in food.  In other words, even if inspectors find salmonella contamination, they can’t really do anything about it. No one at Cargill was charged with any crime, nor did Cargill even receive a fine. In their own carefully chosen words, they weren’t even responsible:

 

“It is regrettable that people may have become ill from eating one of our ground turkey products and, for anyone who did, we are truly sorry,” Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business, said in a written statement.

 

Ironically, it’s the very same small farms that are in trouble with the government that are producing meat and milk from healthy animals that don’t require regular antibiotics, if they require any at all. That means their meat isn’t contaminated with the “superbugs” present in factory farmed meat, and that their milk is safe enough to drink raw. Yet these farms, which are the antidote to the food safety dangers confronting us, are the ones under pressure.  According to the FDA, it is shutting down on raw milk clubs in order to protect health – particularly the health of children.  From theNew York Times:

 

Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the federal Food and Drug Administration, which participated in the investigation of Rawesome, said the administration banned the interstate sale of raw milk products because they could be dangerous for those with compromised immune systems.  “Our biggest concern is really with children, because pathogens that can be in raw milk can be extremely dangerous for the classically at-risk,” she said. “We’ve seen people wind up as paraplegics.”

 

Ironically, the gradual increase in numbers of children with compromised immune systems is likely due to the fact that children with still-developing digestive systems consume, on a daily basis, hard-to-digest pasteurized milk and white bread that ultimately inflames their immune systems and results in autoimmune disorders. Nevertheless, Ms. DeLancey seems uninterested in how these children came to be immunocompromised in the first place.  In fact, the government’s actions have very little to do with promoting health and ensuring food safety, and a lot to do with satisfying lobbyists for large, wealthy food corporations that have influenced legislators and thereby the law so that such corporations are very difficult to regulate, despite their grievous lapses in quality control, while small family farms that produce food according to traditional methods are very tightly regulated and are easy targets for obliteration if they make a single misstep – or even if they don’t. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the conventional food industry is using the government to suppress small businesses that produce high quality, fresh food, because such corporations cannot imitate this model – and when it comes to food, more and more people are concerned about healthfulness, flavor, and freshness of food and less concerned about paying the cheapest price regardless of quality.

There are reasons to be wary of small raw-food providers. Raw milk is only as healthy as the cow it came from. It’s happened before that unscrupulous or just plain ignorant dairies have tried to cash in on the raw milk fad by selling some of their milk raw, without taking care to make sure their cows are grass-fed, free-range, and in good health, and that their operations are sanitized. If you’re going to drink raw milk, buy it from a farmer you can trust, and one who also tests his milk for pathogens. They’re extremely unlikely to be in there (in fact, raw milk from healthy cows tests far lower in pathogens than what is required for pasteurized milk), but there’s no harm in being extra safe. If you’ve taken this precaution, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

On the other hand, if you’re buying a product such as ground beef from a faceless company such as Cargill, whose quality you can’t verify until it’s too late, you’ll be on much shakier ground, in hoping such companies police themselves. After all, they benefit so much from agricultural subsidies that they can recall millions of pounds of meat and still keep chugging along. The same tax dollars we’re paying for the authorities to shut down the small farms that sell good quality food, we’re also paying the big food corporations to perpetuate their existence and crush their competition.

However, as more people become aware of what’s going on and choose to pay a little more for truly good food, and then benefit from their healthier, more satisfying diet, the more small farms will prosper despite the pressures being put upon them from above. When enough people want these farms to be legitimized, the laws will change and the pressure will be on companies like Cargill to adapt or fail. To find sources of raw milk and other natural food-producing farms in your area, try http://www.realmilk.com/.

 

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 3

As discussed in previous newsletters, gluten-containing foods such as wheat or rye bread can be safely consumed by gluten-sensitive people if made with whole grain flour and leavened with sourdough starter instead of with baker’s yeast.  However, ff you have any type of sensitivity to gluten, it’s best to first avoid it entirely for two weeks to a month or more, depending on how severe your reaction normally is and how long you have had a noticeable reaction. Avoiding gluten gives your body time to completely detoxify from it. It also helps reduce your body’s sensitivity, some of which may purely be due to overexposure to gluten. While you are avoiding gluten-containing grains, get your complex, starchy carbohydrates from gluten-free grains such as brown rice, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, corn and amaranth, and from potatoes. All of the grains can typically be found in bulk at your local health food store.

After abstaining from gluten for a few weeks, try reintroducing it in the form of a small amount of 100% sourdough whole wheat bread. Some large supermarkets, such as Whole Foods or Wegman’s, carry whole wheat sourdough, as do most health food stores, but you may need or desire to make it yourself, which takes a little time to learn, but is a very rewarding and enjoyable skill to have mastered. After eating a small amount of sourdough bread, wait a day or two to see if you have any reaction. If you do, you may need to give yourself a few more days or weeks to let your body finish detoxifying. In the meantime, continue with the gluten-free whole grains, but try to limit processed, prepackaged gluten-free foods, as they may delay detoxification due to their own gluten-imitating ingredients.

Once you can eat a small amount of whole wheat sourdough without difficulty, gradually increase your intake. Your body, having had a sufficient “break” from conventional bread, pasta, baked goods, and processed foods containing dextrin (aka gluten), will be able to tolerate daily sourdough bread just as the bodies of your ancestors did. In fact, you should even be able (eventually) to also tolerate non-sourdough whole grain breads and pastas, in moderate amounts, but too much too soon may inflame your immune system again. Therefore, it is important to continue to make whole grain sourdough bread, and sourdough baked goods in general, the majority of your gluten intake. The right balance depends on the individual, and the only way to find out exactly is to test yourself by adjusting your diet accordingly.

Making your own sourdough may sound complicated, but once you have mastered the technique, it does not require a lot of effort, and your home-baked sourdough bread will be the most satisfying, best-tasting bread you’ve ever had. Instructions for making sourdough starter and sourdough bread can be found on many websites. If you’d like our recipe, just send me an email, and I will forward you our instructions while answering any questions you may have. For anyone with gluten sensitivity, I hope this series of articles opens up a new world of possibilities for you. Having grown up with a wheat allergy myself, I find that sourdough gives me the opportunity to enjoy gluten-containing bread just as much as everyone else (if not more), which is the way it’s meant to be.

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 2

As discussed in last week’s article, a growing number of people are being diagnosed with celiac disease, a chronic condition in which the immune system reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the small intestine. There appears to be a genetic predisposition to celiac, but unexpectedly, those most susceptible are descended from European and Caucasian ancestors – the very same people who made gluten-containing grains a staple of their diet, usually in the form of bread. Why would people whose ancestors could tolerate gluten just fine be unable to tolerate it today? This phenomenon has much in common with the history of corn, which traditionally provided sufficient sustenance to Mesoamericans but resulted in nutrient deficiencies among Western Europeans when it was brought over by Columbus. In the case of corn, it was the natural processing method used by the Mesoamericans, but forsaken by the Westerners, that made corn digestible. In the case of gluten-containing grains, the problem again comes down to a change in the processing method.

Ever since the beginning of civilization in the ancient Near East, bread has always been the centerpiece of the diet. Traditionally, to make bread, whole grains were ground into whole grain flour, which was then mixed with water to form dough, and leavened, or allowed to rise. The leavening agent was a portion of a “starter,” a small amount of wet dough that had been colonized by microorganisms already naturally present in the air and on the individual grains: a symbiotic blend of Lactobacillus bacteria and wild yeast (the bacteria far outnumbering the yeast).  The yeast would turn the starches in bread into ethanol and carbon dioxide (which enabled the dough to rise) and the bacteria would feed on the yeast’s byproducts, thereby forming sour-tasting lactic acid, which in turn helped protect both the yeast and bacteria from unwelcome organisms such as other forms of bacteria or mold. After sufficient leavening, this “sourdough” bread would be baked. The result was a moderately risen loaf that kept well and was packed full of nutrition. This was the bread that become known as the “staff of life,” and which served as a metaphor for food in general.

Up until the mid-19th century, bread throughout the world was prepared according to this traditional method. However, the new technology that came with the industrial revolution enabled factories to mass-produce bread made with white flour instead of whole wheat, which reduced the nutrient value of the bread. While white flour had previously been a delicacy of the upper class, it now became the standard for all classes, which had a devastating effect on impoverished people who relied on bread as their main source of nutrition.

Meanwhile, advances in science made it possible for bakers to isolate and grow their own strains of yeast, instead of having to rely on wild yeast. With these abundant quantities of yeast, bread products could be made that didn’t rely on bacteria at all for leavening. The result was bread with a sweeter flavor, which, like white bread, appealed to the upper classes, who were already indulging in large quantities of meats that left them craving excessive sweet flavors. When, in the 1850’s, the technology was available to mass-produce this new form of industrial “baker’s yeast,” bread leavened solely with yeast became the new standard, given that baking with it was easier and quicker, it rose more, and didn’t require sourdough starter. Ever since, the standard form of bread that we eat has been white bread leavened with baker’s yeast, due to both its convenience and its immediate gratification.

What does this have to do with gluten and celiac disease? While the transition from whole grain to white flour is part of the problem (due to the loss of nutrients that would otherwise aid digestion of the bread), the main culprit is the transition from sourdough bread to baker’s yeast-leavened bread. The bacteria that used to ferment all our bread just so happens to produce enzymes that help break down gluten proteins. In addition, the lactic acid byproduct weakens the gluten network by increasing the number of positively charged amino acids along the protein chains, and increasing the repulsive forces between chains. A similar process takes place when we soak meat in an acidic marinade to tenderize it: the protein-based tissues break down and the meat becomes more digestible. The gluten in sourdough bread, therefore, is much easier to digest, which explains why our ancestors could tolerate so much bread. True, their bread didn’t rise as much as ours, but they didn’t mind – they tended to eat it with a lot of butter, lard or olive oil, and just a small amount could sustain them for a long time, which reduced the amount of calories they ate overall.

We started turning our backs on sourdough around the year 1850; the first case of celiac was formally diagnosed only a few decades later, in 1887, and the disease has been getting more prevalent since then. To an extent, we are all gluten-sensitive, even if we don’t have readily apparent celiac disease, wheat allergies, or digestive disorders. We’re just not meant to eat large quantities of gluten unless in a form such as sourdough bread. Nevertheless, in the modern world, gluten is everywhere, not just in bread; in fact, it’s extremely difficult to avoid. Fortunately, we don’t need to cut it out completely, or genetically engineer it to be digestible; we just need to go back to eating it in the form that we did, without health issues, for thousands of years. In the next and final installment of this series, I’ll explain how we can change our baking ways to be more in line with traditional methods.

 

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 1

Celiac disease, also referred to as gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity, or celiac sprue, is a chronic condition in which the immune system reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the small intestine. As a side effect of the immune system’s inflammatory response to gluten, intestinal villi are destroyed.  Villi are small, finger-like projections on the intestinal wall that help us to absorb nutrients. Due to the destruction of the villi, celiac disease sufferers (aka celiacs) gradually lose their ability to digest nutrients. Symptoms of the disease include diarrhea, intestinal cramps, bloating, fatigue, excessive weight loss, failure to thrive (in children), allergies, anemia, and general malnutrition. The only known cure is to completely eliminate gluten from the diet.

Celiac was first described in 1887. Over the succeeding decades, it has become more commonly known and better understood. Today, many people are familiar with the concept of a gluten-free diet, and many people with digestive difficulties experiment with the diet to see if it eliminates their symptoms.  In fact, in recent years a whole cottage industry of gluten-free foods has emerged, catering to the needs of those who cannot tolerate gluten, a group whose numbers seem to be growing exponentially, whether due to better diagnosis of the disease, increase in incidence, or both.

Gluten is the type of protein that is contained in the grains wheat, rye, spelt, kamut and barley. Its elastic, sticky nature is what makes these grains ideal for grinding into flour and baking into bread. The strength and elasticity of gluten protein chains enables the bread to maintain its structure as yeast releases gases that cause the bread to rise. Gluten’s thickening and stabilizing properties also make it popular as a food additive, where it can be found in processed foods sometimes under the name dextrin. In addition to being present in virtually all bread products (essentially any food made with the grains named above), gluten can be found in candies, gravies, imitation meats, lunch meats, salad dresses, sauces, soups, and most processed foods in general. A celiac disease sufferer, in order to be symptom-free, must find a way to avoid all these foods while still managing to eat a balanced diet. Gluten is especially difficult to replace when it comes to foods such as bread and pasta that require its properties to maintain their structure.  As such, modern medical research is currently focused on trying to genetically engineer gluten to maintain its properties while not inflaming the immune system in celiacs.

One fact that these researchers have been able to determine is that celiac disease is hereditary. That is to say, our level of sensitivity to gluten tends to be determined by our genes.  Those populations with the highest sensitivity to gluten tend to be northern and western Europeans and Caucasians in general. Interestingly, these are the populations that are most closely associated with historical consumption of gluten-containing grains such as wheat and rye. Since celiac is a relatively recent disease, what must have happened to suddenly make gluten so intolerable to significant percentages of these populations? This is an area of celiac disease research that has regrettably been left under-explored. However, a look back at history of gluten consumption may shed some light. Actually, it’s best to start with an analogy to the history of maize, or corn, consumption.

Corn, along with rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat, among others, is one of the gluten-free grains, so it has never been linked to celiac disease. However, corn does pose its own digestive issues. The ratio of the different types of protein in corn is not ideal for our own amino acid balance. Corn can contain mycotoxins, byproducts of mold that are carcinogenic. Finally, corn contains niacin (aka vitamin B3), an essential nutrient, but in a form that is indigestible.  Anyone eating a diet that depended heavily on corn to meet nutritional needs would be at risk for a variety of serious health problems, including the vitamin B3 deficiency (aka pellagra), which, like celiac, can be ultimately fatal if the diet is not changed.

In ancient Mesoamerica, where corn was first cultivated, a process called nixtamalization was developed, in which the corn was soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution made of lime (calcium hydroxide) and ash (potassium hydroxide), then hulled. This process removed the mycotoxins, eliminated the excess protein, and freed up the niacin for absorption. As a result of this natural, time-honored form of processing, the Mesoamericans could rely on corn as a staple of their diet. However, when corn was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus and quickly adopted by many due to its high yields, the nixtamalization process was not brought with it. Instead, corn was processed and hulled in mechanical mills. As a consequence, wherever corn became the staple food crop, malnutrition struck.

Today, if any single food has become our staple, it’s wheat, and gluten is clearly even more ubiquitous than wheat. The very people who were able to tolerate it for centuries now appear to be genetically incapable of safely digesting it. Unsurprisingly, the key to the riddle has to do with the change we’ve made from the traditional processing methods of gluten to the modern, just as in the case of the abandonment of corn nixtamalization. Next week’s article will explore the history of gluten processing and describe how, with the right preparation, gluten can be safely consumed – even by celiacs.

Summer Reading Guide

I know, summer is practically over. But if by any chance you’re looking for a captivating and educating health read (besides my newsletters, of course…*ahem*), try any of the books listed below – you’re sure to be both entertained and edified.  The links will take you to the book’s listing on Amazon.com.

The Jungle Effect by Daphne Miller.  Miller, a California MD, decided that the best way to help her chronically unhealthy patients would be to put them on the whole-foods based, traditional diets that their ancestors ate. However, in order to do so, she first had to research those diets. Due to the diverse ethnicities of her patients, she ended up traveling to countries as far-flung as Mexico, Greece and Iceland to learn about these traditional diets in regions where they were still being practiced.  The book contains, in conjunction with anecdotes about how her patients adopted these diets and got healthy, eating plans and recipes for the various traditions she studied.

Food Rules by Michael Pollan.  This one’s short – and memorable. It consists of 64 (usually) one-sentence rules about what kind of food we should eat. The rules are geared towards eating more whole foods, and fewer processed foods – examples include “Avoid foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup,” “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead,” “Eat your colors,”  “Don’t buy food where you buy gasoline,” etc. You might not agree with every single rule, but they’re certainly thought-provoking and creative.

Nourishing Wisdom by Marc David. This short book, while confirming that eating good quality whole foods is very important, addresses the other factors that go into determining our health, such as our emotional and spiritual nourishment, as well as the importance of “how” we eat: e.g., are we enjoying our food slowly while sitting at a table with friends and family, or gulping it down while driving to work? Some of us need this type of practical wisdom far more than we do more advice on what foods are good and what are bad.

The Self-Healing Cookbook by Kristina Turner. As the title indicates, this is a cookbook as much as it is a health book. Turner writes from a macrobiotic perspective, which means that the recipes center on adding whole grains, beans, vegetables and sea vegetables to your diet. However, Turner also details how different foods can affect your mood and emotions, and gears her recipes towards helping you to establish a balanced physical and emotional state. The exercises in the book also help to figure out what particular foods are best for you and why.

The Energy Balance Diet by Joshua Rosenthal. If any of you out there are determined to find a specific diet plan to follow, I can’t recommend any more highly than this one, written by the founder and director of Integrative Nutrition, where I received my health counseling education. Rosenthal shows how to develop a balanced diet of whole foods that will help you to achieve your correct weight, establish steady energy levels, and understand and address your food cravings. Like all the other books on this list, it’s well-written, easy to follow, and entertaining without being shallow or extreme. Happy reading!

Eating Right on Vacation

Whenever summer rolls around, I inevitably hear from my clients during this week or that that they didn’t eat well because they were on vacation. In fact, eating right is extremely difficult on vacation. It’s not just that whole, natural foods are hard to find when traveling; we can also get into a celebratory mode in which we decide to eat and drink what we want and worry about the consequences later, because we’re supposed to be having fun. To a certain extent, that’s a good attitude to have; if we’re constantly worrying about whether we’re eating right, we’ll make ourselves sick . But if we eat too poorly, we can easily come down with digestive problems, headaches, low energy, weak immunity, etc., both during and after our vacations.  Naturally, we don’t want to be sick during this time; we want to be refreshed. So what can be done? Here are a few tips that can help make your vacation this year or next a little more enjoyable:

1. Make meals in advance. The best way to ensure that you feel good during vacation is to bring some of your own food. However, you may not want to spend all your time cooking. If you’re staying somewhere that has a kitchen or kitchenette, I recommend making balanced meals in advance, freezing them, and then thawing them out while you’re vacationing. In the weeks leading up to vacation, just make a double portion of a meal that you’d like to have while vacationing, and freeze the leftovers. This year, for our vacation, my wife and I are bringing with us homemade frozen red lentil sauce with chicken, chili with ground beef, shepherd’s pie, and Bolognese sauce. Since we have access to a kitchen, we’ll also be able to bring and make brown rice, greens, and other simple supplementary foods, but it won’t involve a lot of cooking time. The net result is that, since we’ll be nourished by these balanced meals, we’ll have plenty of energy for the things we want to do, and we’ll still feel good when we get home!

2. Bring your own healthy snacks. Vacationers tend to eat lots of snack foods. I recommend that you make it a priority, if possible, to eat three balanced meals a day. But part of the joy of vacation is snacking. Fortunately, there are many healthy snacks out there that can be a good supplement to your diet (and if you are very physically active during vacation, you may need them in addition to regular meals). Examples include fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds, trail mix, popcorn, yogurt with honey, homemade ice cream, lemonade, or sorbet, smoothies, dark chocolate, corn chips with guacamole or salsa, cheese, olives and pickles.

3. When eating out, choose what’s easy to digest. Eating out is another pleasure of vacationing, and sometimes it’s nice to get a comfort food even though it may not be so good for you. But if you’re eating out because you have no other choice and you simply want to avoid feeling gross, stay away from foods that are deep-fried, made with white flour or sugar, or contain dairy products. Instead, choose meat, fish, or poultry, and vegetables. If the restaurant has brown rice or whole wheat bread, then you can go with that as well. If you follow this advice, you’ll be more likely to maintain your energy and digestive health in the hours and days that follow.

 

What Vegetables Do I Need?

Everyone says to eat more vegetables, but what does that look like in practice? While all vegetables are nutritious, they don’t all provide the exact same nutrients. Some are better eaten in the winter, some are better in the summer; some are better roasted, while others are better steamed, boiled, or raw. But the most important distinction to draw among vegetables is what individual health benefits they provide. Vegetables can in fact be broken up into different families, each one providing a unique general health benefit. The best way to be nourished by vegetables is to get some from each family on a regular basis. The following chart provides a basic outline:

 

Roots Greens Gourds Nightshades Bulbs Sea vegetables
Carrots Cabbage Yellow squash Tomatoes Celery Arame
Radishes (Daikon, Red) Spinach Zucchini Peppers Leeks Hijiki
Beets Broccoli Cucumber Eggplants

 

Scallions Nori
Parsnips Collards Acorn squash Potatoes Onions Kombu/Kelp
Turnips Kale Butternut squash   Garlic Dulse
Rutabagas Swiss Chard Pumpkin   Asparagus Wakame
Yam Mustard Greens Kabocha squash   Rhubarb  
Sweet potato Arugula     Shallots  
  Bok Choy     Kohlrabi  
  Salad greens        

 

Roots. These vegetables contain sweet, complex carbohydrates that are filling and satisfying, reducing the need to snack on carbs in the form of potato chips, cookies or crackers. They also contain many vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Roots and greens together create a powerful 1-2 punch of nutrition that keeps your body stabilized and healthy, whatever else you eat.

Greens. These vegetables are the best for balancing blood sugar and restoring nutrients to the body. Some people need time to get used to the bitter flavor. Try starting with mild or sweet greens such as bok choy, cabbage, or napa cabbage. I recommend having a serving of greens at least once a day, with lunch or dinner. Your body will begin to crave them after you begin eating them regularly.

Gourds. In the summer, this means summer squash, zucchini and cucumbers, and in the winter, pumpkins, acorn squash, and other winter squashes. Mildly sweet, these vegetables are very soothing to the digestive system. Cucumbers are good raw or pickled, summer squash combines well with nightshades in dishes like ratatouille, and winter squash is a great ingredient in desserts (pumpkin bread or pie) or savory dishes (chunks of butternut squash boiled and then roasted on pizza).

Nightshades. Potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are among the most-often consumed vegetables, but they are not necessarily the best. All of them are in fact tropical vegetables, originating in South America and North Africa, and while they are nutritious, they should not be consumed in greater quantities than the other vegetable groups, particularly because they contain small quantities of alkaloids, chemical compounds that can cause joint inflammation and minor nervous system disorders.

Bulbs. Usually spicy when raw but mild when cooked, these vegetables are best at killing bad bacteria and dissolving excess fat. They’re very good for dealing with colds and congestion and support the immune system, and combine well with roots and with greens (in fact, onions and garlic go with just about anything).

Sea vegetables. The most mineral rich of all vegetables, sea vegetables are important but can be eaten in moderation. Sea vegetables like kombu and wakame are good in miso soup, and are excellent at restoring health to someone who has experienced mineral loss as a result of too much sugar in junk food and soda.

If you are working on adding more vegetables to your diet and/or your kids’ diets, include some vegetables from each of the groups listed above. Choose what’s in season, emphasize the different colors, shapes, sizes and tastes of the vegetables, and don’t hesitate to combine them with salt, herbs and spices, and some healthy fat to create a balance of flavors. Not only will your health improve from greater variety and more frequent servings of vegetables, but your meals will become tastier as well.

The USDA’s MyPlate Eating Guide

On June 2, 2011, the USDA, in conjunction with First Lady Michelle Obama, released MyPlate, which replaced MyPyramid as their guide for how Americans should eat.  For decades, the government has been trying to consolidate nutrition advice from health professionals and pass it on to Americans in a clear, easy to follow format, especially as our obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates have increased over the same time period. However, in giving advice, the USDA also has been careful not to be to too strong in warning people away from the processed food produced by the American food industry, which is both a major part of the economy and a major reason why Americans are so sick. As a result of its conflicting obligations, the government’s advice is often contradictory and confusing, and the MyPlate guide is no exception (though it is marginally better than its predecessors).

The plate that now replaces the pyramid as the icon of how to balance our diets consists of four approximately equal sections, one each for fruits, vegetables, grains and “protein.” There is also a separate cup beside the plate, labeled dairy. The USDA has boiled down its directives to the following simple messages: 1. Enjoy your food, but eat less; 2. Avoid oversized portions; 3. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables; 4. Make at least half your grains whole grains; 5. Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk; 6. Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers; and 7. Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Will MyPlate actually help stem the obesity epidemic? According to Michelle Obama, quoted in the USDA Press Release, “As long as [our kids’ plates are] half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, we’re golden.  That’s how easy it is.” Unfortunately, MyPlate will probably not have much of an effect, despite the fact that some very good advice can be found among the USDA’s recommendations. A major reason for this is that MyPlate, in addition to offering good advice, also offers some bad advice, and fails to offer any advice at all in some crucial areas. As a result, those who try to follow it conscientiously will find themselves feeling hungry and craving junk food after meals, and those who follow it less conscientiously will find plenty of wiggle room within the guidelines for including lots of processed food.

For example, MyPlate instructs us to make at least half of our grains whole grains. Because whole grains are naturally more dense and fibrous than refined grains, and have a more complex flavor, they need to be paired with a healthy fat, like cold pressed olive oil, or butter from grass-fed cows, to be appetizing. Combining whole grains and healthy fat also helps us feel full exactly at the point when we’ve eaten the right number of calories. But in MyPlate, fat is either frowned upon or relegated to the background. In following MyPlate, people will try to eat whole grains with little or no fat, and will find them unpalatable.  They will therefore gravitate towards the refined grains, which they are permitted to eat an astounding 50% of the time. What’s ironic is that refined grains, not fats, are what cause us to gain weight, because while both are high in calories, fat makes us feel full but refined carbs leave us constantly hungry. Thus does MyPlate’s bad advice (reduce fat) actually nullify our ability to follow its good advice (eat more whole grains). What about the other recommendations? Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1.      Enjoy your food, but eat less. The first part of this message is good – food is meant to be a source of pleasure as well as nutrition and sustenance. The second part, however, propagates the misconception that we need to cut down on the foods we enjoy in order to be healthy. In fact, the most enjoyable foods also happen to be the healthiest, and when we eat these foods, we feel full right at the point when we’ve had enough. Only when we’re following a flawed plan like MyPlate do we need to worry about “eating less.”

2.      Avoid oversized portions. Again, when we’re eating a healthy diet, we can let our cravings dictate how big of a portion we need. Sometimes it will be large, sometimes it will be small, but it will always reflect what our body needs at that moment. MyPlate’s vague, one-size-fits-all statement doesn’t offer any concrete guidance.

3.      Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, so this advice points in the right direction. But fruit shouldn’t usually be eaten with other foods – it’s better digested eaten alone, as a snack or dessert. Though a one-size-fits-all approach still has flaws, a better general recommendation would be making your plate 1/3 vegetables, 1/3 whole grains, and 1/3 meat, eggs or beans.

4.      Make at least half your grains whole grains. Again, this recommendation should really be “Make all your grains whole grains.” If whole grains are better (and they are) we should eat them all the time; there’s no need for refined grains. The USDA doesn’t want to acknowledge this explicitly because so many food products are made with refined grains.

5.      Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.  First of all, fat makes you full, not fat, so following this recommendation won’t help reduce obesity. Saturated fat, the type in milk, was at one time linked to heart disease, but it’s since been discovered that the real culprit is theabsence of another type of fat, omega-3 fatty acids, which are lacking in the milk and meat of factory-farmed cows. This recommendation should therefore be “Switch to whole unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows raised on small family farms.” Finally, milk is not an essential food; the USDA implies that it is in order to satisfy the dairy industry. However, the nutrients it contains can be found in other foods, such as beans, eggs, and green leafy vegetables.

6.      Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers.  While this is good advice if you’re going to be buying pre-made soup, bread, and frozen meals, the best way to get a healthy amount of sodium, and what the USDA should recommend, is to make your own soup, bread, and meals, adding salt until it tastes right to you.

7.      Drink water instead of sugary drinks. Hooray! The USDA got one right – sort of. People crave sugary drinks often because their diets are already imbalanced – and following MyPlate’s recommendations won’t take away that imbalance. Most people will just not be capable of following this advice, especially if they are eating MyPlate’s way. So the soda manufacturers don’t have much to fear.

 

As a response to MyPlate, I’ve created the following alternative simple five-step eating plan, which I think would vastly improve the health of all people who adopted it, and which contains recommendations that complement one another:

1.      Eat whole foods, or foods with whole-food ingredients. For example, tomatoes, or tomato sauce containing tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and olive oil, but no sugar. With each meal, try to get some of the foods in each of the following macronutrient categories:

a.      Complex Carbohydrates: Grains such as brown rice, whole wheat or whole wheat flour, quinoa, barley, oats, corn, and buckwheat; Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squashes; Fruits such as apples, pears, melons, bananas, plums, mangoes, oranges, and grapefruit ; Natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, barley malt, and raw honey.

b.      Protein: Animal products such as beef, poultry, lamb, pork, milk, cheese, fish and eggs; Beans and bean products such aslentils, black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, chickpeas, tofu and tempeh; Nuts and seeds such as almonds, peanuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and cashews.

c.      Fats: Vegetable oils such as olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil and corn oil; Animal fats such as butter and lard.

d.      Vitamins & Minerals: Vegetables such as  greens (kale, collards, chard, bok choy, spinach, etc.) roots (beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, parsnips, etc.), bulbs (onions, garlic, celery, scallions, etc.); nightshades (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant), gourds (cucumber, summer squash), and many more; Fruits such as berries, lemons and limes; Herbs and Spices such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, garlic, pepper, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, etc.

e.      Microorganisms: Raw fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha, raw sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, and kefir.

2.      On average, eat about 1/3 carbs, 1/3 protein, and 1/3 vegetables with meals. The right way to balance a diet differs from person to person based on body type, activity levels, climate and environment, season, gender, age, and so on. If you’re eating healthy foods, then by listening to your cravings, you can figure out what balance is right for you at any given time. Some other notes: Fruit, especially raw, doesn’t digest well with most other foods, so it should be eaten as a snack or a dessert. Fats, such as olive oil or butter, can be obtained separately or from eating the whole food in which they are originally found (olives and milk, in this case). Herbs, spices, and sweeteners should all be used in small amounts, to flavor foods. As seen above, some foods contain more than one type of nutrient and can meet more than one requirement at once.

3.      Use good quality ingredients. All plant foods – grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, vegetable oils, etc. – should be organic when possible. Animal products should come from animals raised on their natural feed, and if that feed is organic, even better. Fruits and vegetables should be fresh and in season; if locally grown, even better. Vegetable oils should be cold pressed and packed in a dark bottle, in addition to organic. Milk is best unpasteurized, if from healthy cows; if pasteurized, choose organic and grass-fed. Even if organic, foods such as beans or tomato sauce are better cooked from scratch than from a can.

4.      Eat home cooked food at least 80% of the time; when eating out, choose restaurants that also follow the recommendations above.  When eating home cooked food, you can fully control the quality of the ingredients, the balance of the meal, and adjust the flavors and proportions as suits your body’s individual needs.

5.      If the above steps are followed, eat in accordance with your cravings.  We’re taught that food cravings are to be resisted. But when we’re eating a healthy and balanced diet, our bodies naturally start to crave those healthy foods, and crave them in just the right quantity and proportion. As a result, once you’ve introduced your body to the healthy way of eating described above, you don’t need to worry about calorie counts, portion sizes, or how much fat or carbs you are getting – you can listen to your cravings, and they will guide you towards foods that will help you to achieve our natural weight.

 

Such an eating plan, if many people followed it, would result in major upheaval in the American – and world – economy. Not only is our food system global, but people in the rest of the world look to Americans as their example for how to eat.  The sugar, dairy, meat, processed food industries would never abide by it, for it would result in almost total abdication from their products in favor of a more local, farm-to-table based economy.

This brings us back to the conflicts inherent in MyPlate. Programs like MyPlate and MyPyramid have tremendous influence, not in getting people to be healthier, but in giving them a flawed conception of what is healthy and what is not, and actually reinforcing them in eating processed food by giving them an unappetizing alternative.  Instead of trying to give people advice that is skewed by vested interests, the government should eliminate the subsidies that make processed food artificially cheap, so that it’s easier for us to make our own choices to eat healthier. While MyPlate is better than previous guides, it’s inherently insincere, as it is committed to the status quo rather than allowing a new food economy that actually supports our health.

Preventing Pneumonia in Children

This past winter and spring, I kept hearing about how children in the families I knew were coming down with pneumonia. In fact, pneumonia, which is a condition of inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs associated with infection, is fairly common in our country; it affects 5.6 million people per year and is the 6th most common cause of death. In the winter and spring, when our immune systems are weakened by the cold and then overloaded by pollen, respiratory issues are at their worst. Fortunately, since pneumonia in children is usually caused by a bacterial infection, it can be treated with antibiotics.  Unfortunately, for increasing numbers of children, pneumonia is not an isolated event, but the consequence of chronic respiratory illness, such as asthma. This type of chronic illness is a condition to which antibiotics actually contribute, due to their overall weakening of the immune system.

Although I criticized antibiotics in last week’s newsletter, what I’m really criticizing in both cases is their overuse. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children in poor countries, and it doesn’t kill children here because of antibiotics and other tools of modern medicine. But while antibiotics may prevent serious illness and death, they don’t establish general health. Just prescribing them over and over again won’t prevent future illness. The real question is why our children are getting sick in the first place. After all, it’s easy to identify the causes of respiratory illness in poor countries. In these countries, children are malnourished because they can’t access the food they need. They are more likely to be at risk of lung pollution from the poisons accumulated in the environment due to unregulated industry or ongoing war. But by and large, we don’t have those concerns. So why do American children get sick as much as they do?

The reason lies in the fact that, in many ways, our children are the extreme opposites of their third-world counterparts. Instead of suffering from getting too few calories and protein, they get too much, in the form of sugar, white flour, factory farmed meat, and rancid or hydrogenated oils. This excess of protein, calories and toxins is more than the liver and kidneys can handle, leading to a backlog that accumulates in the lungs and sinuses as phlegm and mucus, and causes the symptoms of wheezing and shortness of breath that are seen in asthma.  This backlog also makes it harder to the immune system to effectively deal with respiratory infections. In fact, pathogens are far more likely to take root in a person with a congested, stagnant condition, as congested lungs are just the type of environment in which they thrive.  In addition, as a side effect of our overzealous attempts to create a clean environment for our children, we rely on excessively strong cleaners and antibacterial products, which cause our children’s’ immune systems to be under-developed. The result is that an infection their bodies should be able to zap without a second thought ends up making them sick.

Once children develop chronic respiratory issues, they are often given prescription medicine to take indefinitely – usually some type of anti-inflammatory steroid, the purpose of which is essentially to eliminate the symptoms of wheezing, mucus production, and so forth. However, these symptoms, as said above, are the consequence of the body attempting to detoxify of the byproducts of excessive processed food or allergens. Shutting down the body’s systems works in the short term, but leaves the child vulnerable for more serious illness – such as pneumonia. In addition, such medications have negative side effects such as cramps, sore throat, lightheadedness, dry mouth, upset stomach, even behavioral changes.

The best long-term approach is to put your child on a healthier diet, one that provides the appropriate amount of calories and nutrition. Particularly important to emphasize in the beginning are foods that specifically heal and protect the lungs. Here are some examples broken down according to the different types of foods that help:

Pungent Foods: These foods help to break up and flush out the mucus in clogged lungs and sinuses. Examples are onions, garlic, radishes, horseradish, white peppercorns, turnips and chili peppers.

Cleansing Foods: Green leafy vegetables, which contain nutrients that helps the lungs to eliminate toxic residue. Interestingly, the stalks of many leafy greens, such as kale, collards, mustard greens, and swiss chard, somewhat resemble the lungs.

Immune Boosters:: Golden-orange vegetables contain beta carotene that helps protect the mucous membranes of the lungs. Examples are carrots, winter squashes, pumpkins, turnips, and rutabagas.

Fermented Foods: Raw fermented foods contain active bacteria and enzymes that aid digestion and detoxification and help the immune system fight off pathogenic bacteria. Finding one that your child likes and serving him or her a small amount each day will go a long towards improving their health.  Examples are sugar-free yogurt, raw sauerkraut or kimchee, miso, kombucha, and kefir.

The following foods also aid the lungs in various ways: brown rice, barley, millet, oats, cauliflower, lotus root, celery, white fish, and herbs and spices such as dill, fennel, coriander, basil, bay leaves, cardamom and licorice. One particularly powerful natural medicine is oil of oregano, which has antiseptic and antibacterial properties but does not weaken the immune system. It can be taken internally or inhaled via vapor steaming. Finally, simply breathing deeply on a regular basis helps to heal the lungs.  Shallow breathing results in reduced oxygen, which decreases the capacity of all the body’s systems.

Adding foods is more important than removing them. However, it’s good to know which foods can make respiratory conditions worse. The main culprits are pasteurized dairy products, white flour, sugar, and hydrogenated oils, so they should be eliminated or replaced with their healthier counterparts as appropriate. However, even the healthier versions of these foods – raw dairy from grass-fed cows, whole wheat flour, natural sweeteners, and naturally processed oils – may need to be given in more limited quantities until the child shows freedom from symptoms even when not on medication, as these foods are by nature more heavy and congesting.

If your child has pneumonia, he or she obviously needs immediate medical attention. But if your child has frequent colds or chronic respiratory issues, which may occasionally worsen into pneumonia, you can use the foods and remedies listed above to change the course of your child’s health, help them to detoxify fully, and give them the nutrients they need for strong, healthy lungs.

Raw Milk, the FDA, and the E. coli Outbreak

On April 19th, the Federal Food and Drug Administration filed a complaint  against Pennsylvania Amish dairy farmer Dan Allgyer, alleging that he had violated federal law by delivering raw milk across state lines. The milk was being purchased on a regular basis by a cooperative of buyers in Maryland, a state that has outlawed the sale of raw milk within its own borders. It is legal to sell raw milk in Pennsylvania, but a violation of interstate commerce laws to deliver it to buyers in other states. According to Dara A. Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs,  “Drinking raw milk is dangerous and [it] shouldn’t be consumed under any circumstances…[the] FDA has warned the defendant on multiple occasions that introducing raw milk into interstate commerce is in violation of Federal law.”

However, despite their claims about the danger of drinking raw milk, the FDA could not point to any cases of foodborne illness arising from the consumption of Allgyer’s milk. In fact, raw milk in Pennsylvania is already highly regulated.  More than 110 farms in Pennsylvania have raw milk permits that are only maintained via regular and rigorous testing for the kinds of bacteria that cause foodborne illness. As Adam Helfer of the Washington Times pointed out,

 

“The confusion seems to arise from the FDA not understanding and differentiating between conventional milk (which needs to be pasteurized for safety) and raw milk from healthy, pastured animals and clean conditions. It is to be noted that grass-fed raw milk has been consumed safely by cultures for thousands of years.”

 

Cows fed on grass, their natural food, and raised in their traditional environment (open pasture) with plenty of space to graze, are consistently healthy, unlike their factory-farmed, grain-fed counterparts. As a result, their milk is not only more nutritious, but contains significant quantities of beneficial bacteria and enzymes, which protect the milk from pathogenic bacteria. Instead of putrefying, raw milk from healthy cows simply sours over time, as the beneficial bacteria proliferate, and ultimately turns into buttermilk, yogurt and cheese. While raw milk from factory farmed cows would be very risky to drink, raw milk from healthy cows is practically impossible to contaminate, and does not need to be pasteurized.

It all comes down to the question of whether the cows are healthy, and closely monitored – standards which are easily achieved on a small family farm like Dan Allgyer’s.  If these conditions are met, raw milk is vastly superior to pasteurized (whether organic or factory farmed – though organic and pasteurized is superior to factory farmed and pasteurized), both in terms of nutrition and taste, which is why growing numbers of people are choosing to purchase it. The FDA, in ignoring this distinction, conflates all raw milk as equally dangerous, regardless of the cow it came from. Consequently, the FDA considers it necessary to take away our freedom to purchase raw milk.

In an attempt to be generous to the FDA, one could say that they are being busybodies only out of a sincere desire to protect our health. They may be trying to control what we can eat and drink, but at least it is with our best interests at heart. However, not only does the FDA permit the sale of cigarettes and alcohol – both of which, if consumed too frequently, are actual health hazards, unlike raw milk from grass-fed cows – the FDA even overlooks the dangers it has admittedly identified in pasteurized milk.

In January of this year, the New York Times reported that the FDA, each year, finds illegal levels of antibiotics in older dairy cows that are destined for the slaughterhouse. The big dairy companies regularly dose their cows with antibiotics because the factory-farm conditions in which these cows live are so unhealthy – and the cows’ diets are so poor – that they are sick almost every day of their lives.  Since it stood to reason that the dangerously high levels of antibiotics the FDA found might be in the dairy cows even while they are producing milk for human consumption, the FDA was considering testing the milk from the large dairy farms that were the sources of the high-antibiotic cows destined for the slaughterhouse.

However, the FDA’s proposal met with strong resistance from the pasteurized dairy industry. Why? Ostensibly because the testing would take long enough that milk from the cows being tested would have to be put on the market in the meantime. And if the milk turned out to be contaminated with antibiotics, it would then have to be recalled, costing dairy producers millions and harming their reputations. To quote from the New York Times article,

 

“What has been served up, up to this point, by Food and Drug has been potentially very damaging to innocent dairy farmers,” said John J. Wilson, a senior vice president for Dairy Farmers of America, the nation’s largest dairy cooperative. He said that that the nation’s milk was safe and that there was little reason to think that the slaughterhouse findings would be replicated in tests of the milk supply.

 

The danger to us, of course, is that by consuming too many antibiotics in milk, we could not only weaken our own immune systems but also further the evolution of drug resistant strains of bacteria. In fact, one impetus for the new testing is that the antibiotics for which the FDA currently tests are no longer the only ones in use by dairy farmers. Why are so many new antibiotics being used? Because the most common ones are losing their effectiveness as those drug resistant strains of bacteria develop. If there was ever a situation for the FDA to step in this was it. Unfortunately, all the dairy industry had to do was send a “sharply worded letter” to the FDA to get them to withdraw their testing plan for indefinite review.  That means anyone who is drinking conventional pasteurized milk may be drinking a product too dangerous to be on store shelves.

So is the FDA really looking out for us? Or are they just looking for easy targets? It seems that any segment of the food industry that is large and influential is safe from oversight, but a single Amish farmer working hard to provide the highest quality of milk to his small group of buyers is Public Enemy #1. Perhaps the fact that his business is a threat to the big dairy industry is the real reason why scrutiny is on him.

What does the future hold? Marylanders, and residents of other states, who would like to choose raw milk, may have fewer and fewer options.  Congressman Ron Paul has introduced a bill, HR 1830, that would allow the shipment and distribution of unpasteurized milk and milk products for human consumption across state lines; however, the bill is unlikely to pass.  Conventional pasteurized milk will continue to dominate the market for the foreseeable future, and because it achieves its artificially low prices based on unnatural factory farming (helped out by government subsidies on the grains and soybeans it feeds the cows), it will continue to need to pump its animals full of antibiotics just to keep them alive. Those antibiotics will also continue to give rise to new strains of drug-resistant pathogens. There’s one in particular that you might be reading about in the news lately: E. coli O104:H4.

E. coli is a bacterium commonly found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals.  Most strains of E. coli are harmless, even beneficial, contributing to the flora of the gut, but a few (such as serotype O157:H7) produce shiga toxin, which causes hemorrhagic diarrhea and kidney failure.  The current outbreak in Germany is being caused by shiga-toxin producing strain O104:H4 – a new strain that resists more than a dozen commonly used antibiotics, making illnesses caused by it extremely difficult to treat. In the span of a month, it sickened over 3,000 people and killed 36.  European public health officials, desperately seeking the immediate source of the bacteria, first incorrectly guessed it was cucumbers and other raw vegetables imported from Spain; now they are fairly confident it was sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany. How E. coli O104:H4 got into the sprouts in the first place has not yet been determined.  But outbreaks of shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STECs for short), which have been in existence for less than thirty years, almost always have their ultimate origin in cattle.

A recent article in Bloomberg News quotes Australian veterinary public health researcher Rowland Cobbold as saying that “Cattle are the main reservoir for E. coli, the family of bowel-dwelling bacteria from which the new bug comes…The cucumber [or other raw vegetable] may be the lead back to the original ruminant that was the source…It’s almost entirely likely that it came from cattle at some point.” From the article:

 

Outbreaks of bloody diarrhea caused by E. coli have usually been linked to contaminated meat, Cobbold said. In more recent outbreaks where fruit and vegetables were implicated, E. coli- contaminated manure or irrigation water were found to be the original source, he said.

“If this goes the same way as previous investigations, they’ll find the ‘smoking gun’ — the ‘smoking tomato’ or the ‘smoking cucumber’,” Cobbold said. “They will then follow the production source back to the farm and they’ll work out the various contamination roots.” Most likely that will lead to the “smoking cow,” or at least a specific herd where the strain can be found, he said.

 

Intestines, or fecal matter from the hide of a cow in a slaughterhouse, can mix with meat going into ground beef. E. coli in manure can also spread into nearby fields and water sources and thereby get into vegetables.  As a consequence of the latest outbreak, many are now calling for irradiation of our entire food supply (essentially, pasteurization of cucumbers and lettuce), another solution which would enable food producers to skip quality assurance, and which is likely to give rise to new types of health crises, just as the current system of industrial agriculture has done.

The capacity for pathogenic bacteria to spread continent-wide from a single farm or animal is one of the flaws of our global food system.  But the real issue is what gives rise to a bacterium like E. coli 0104:H4 in the first place: over-usage of antibiotics, the very issue which the FDA, despite its stated mission to protect our health, is hesitating to address. While it’s frightening that similar outbreaks in the future are almost inevitable, it’s deeply ironic that the FDA is busy attacking the very type of farm that, by raising healthy cows in a natural, small, easily monitored environment, and selling its products directly to its local customers, is designed to prevent such global catastrophes

We are not in any danger from farms like Dan Allgyer’s. But we have reason to fear that factory farming, with its unhealthy cows full of antibiotics, will lead to new strains of E.coli that have to potential to repeatedly contaminate our global food system.  If the FDA were serious about limiting the spread of food borne pathogens, it would go to the source of the problem – the poor diet and unhygienic living conditions of the animals who are the initial victims of industrial, factory farmed agriculture.  At the same time, it would leave in peace those who are choosing to bypass the industrial food system for a local system that’s safer, healthier, and more accountable.