Listowel Banner editorial
E. coli 0157:H7 is not as much a mystery to us in this part of the country as it may be to others. Thanks to the Walkerton tainted water crisis a few years back, we know what is meant when a news story reports people have become ill from the bacteria. It means bloody diarrhea, emergency departments crowded with worried parents holding little kids too weak to hold up their heads, med evac helicopters landing and taking off every hour of the day and night, and the smell of bleach everywhere. It means worries over long-term effects like kidney disease, it means funerals, and it means a whole community in shock.
Oh, yes, we know about E. coli 0157:H7 – perhaps more than we want to.
We also know the bacteria is not as rare as we would like it to be. Neither are outbreaks of illness – usually connected with improperly cooked ground meat, hence the name hamburger disease (to be safe, cook to an internal temperature of at least 160 F or 71 C). The deadly outbreak in Walkerton, where the bacteria contaminated the town’s water supply, was unusual in the number of people who became ill, and in the source of the problem. While beef is the most common factor, other meats and even vegetables such as bean sprouts can become contaminated with E. coli. And they have. Every year thousands of people become ill, some fatally, from the bacteria. Some recent outbreaks have affected entire countries and continents.
Thank you, food globalization.
In ancient times, finding food was everyone’s full-time occupation. Food borne illnesses undoubtedly existed. In fact, since people had no knowledge of sanitation or ways to ensure food was properly refrigerated and cooked, they likely got sick from contaminated food a lot. But outbreaks were limited to only a few people, because hunting and gathering can support only small groups of humans.
Farming provided a surplus of food, enabling some members of a group to devote energies to such occupations as raiding nearby groups, building things, and leading everyone in worshiping the gods.
Over the years, the trend in agriculture has been fewer people producing more food. Today, in North America, we have a smaller percentage of the population producing food than at any time in history, and we eat better than at any time in history, a phenomenal variety of food available every season of the year – raspberries in February, ice cream in July, and meat whenever we want. Technology has given us the ability to keep food fresh a lot longer, and to transport it around the world.
Raising most food – including animals – in near-factory conditions, while most people live in urban areas, is efficient, but there is a price to be paid. Disease spreads further, and faster, than at any time in history. And we get new diseases appearing. Mad cow disease – bovine spongiform encephalopathy – is a good example, caused by feeding animal protein to grass-eaters, to literally “beef them up” faster. And we have E. coli 0157:H7, the result of two bacteria combining to form something deadly and easily spread.
Virulent diseases have appeared from time to time throughout history, but they have been self-limiting, killing the host before he, she or it spreads the disease. Welcome to the new millennium, when people and animals routinely live in unnaturally close proximity to others, and also routinely travel vast distances. When virulent diseases appear, they spread faster than they kill hosts.
No one thinks XL Foods is unique in failing to prevent contamination. Smaller meat processing facilities and other agriculture and food related businesses have been found at fault in the past. But because the plant is huge and serves a worldwide market, the impact of this E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak is also worldwide.
Bigger is not necessarily better. When five people drink from a contaminated water supply and get sick, no one blinks an eye. When several thousand share the same contaminated water supply, it is a disaster. Bigger demands extra vigilance in safeguards against disease, whether it is protecting our drinking water or food. To date, 12 people from several provinces have become ill from the XL Foods E. coli outbreak. We cannot afford to view this as an isolated incident; it is a warning.