September is E.coli Month!

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With more bags of contaminated spinach being discovered every day, and now with reports of a small E.coli outbreak in raw milk, I hereby pronounce September "E.coli Month." If kites get to have their own official month, then certainly a bacterial strain should as well!

There are many varieties of Escherichia coli, but the strain that is popping up everywhere lately is 0157:H7. Found in the intestines of ruminants such as cows, deer, goats, and sheep, 0157:H7 in humans can cause diarrhea, cramping, vomiting and other pleasant consequences. According to the CDC, "more infections in the United States have been caused by eating undercooked ground beef than by any other food." Though I take exception to calling rare meat "undercooked," I must say that it is all too easy to catch E.coli this way. I am all but certain that I had a bout with E.coli this past February after eating a medium-rare hamburger.

Interestingly, Nina Planck, raw-milk advocate and author of Real Food, recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which she argues that this particular strain of E.coli is "not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms."

And then there's this opinion from Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farms. A partner in Riverside Farms, Andy was involved in the "baby green" business early in its history and has lots of experience with the washing & packing processes in that industry. In fact, Riverside Farms was sold in 1996 to Natural Selections, the company whose products are currently at the focus of the FDA's spinach investigation. In his piece, Andy claims that its the actual cutting of the spinach (or any leafy green for that matter) that can introduce the bacteria, especially if the blade being used isn't kept scrupulously clean. So a bunch of fresh spinach, uncut with their roots still attached, is perfectly safe to eat.

What really sticks in Andy's craw, and mine for that matter, is that neither the FDA nor the media are educating people properly as to the real problem here. The reaction to the outbreak has been to warn people against eating spinach until the investigation is complete. And while I'm happy that arugula is finally getting its moment in the sun, so to speak, it's not the spinach we should be worried about. It's the industrial food complex, where the immense scale of growing, washing, and packaging has gotten too big to control. (And let's not even mention the fact that you are much more likely to get hit by a car on any given day than die--or even get sick--from E.coli.)

Why is this relevant to our little cheese blog? Well, raw milk cheeses, which are one of the pinnacles of human gastronomy, are constantly under threat from organizations like the FDA. Under the guise of public safety, they raise the specter of bacterial infections and deem such foods unsafe for consumption. We already cannot enjoy the bounty of young raw milk cheeses such as the French do--we must only consume raw milk cheeses aged for more than 60 days--and yet there are many who would like to ban raw milk cheeses altogether.

Again and again, this fear-mongering from the FDA singles out the wrong villain. It is not the cheese itself that is unsafe; the French have been safely making and eating raw milk cheeses for centuries. It is the unsanitary practices of a small handful of farmers and cheesemakers. If the FDA spent more time and resources regulating and educating people on best practices, rather than continuing their witch-hunt of "evil" products, we would all get to have our proverbial cake and eat it too. If the FDA does continue in their current vein, it might not be so long before we can no longer eat some of rich bounties life has to offer: fresh leafy greens, salami, unpasteurized juice, raw milk, and raw milk cheeses. What a sad day that would be for us all.

UPDATE: Organic Pastures, the California company whose raw milk was recalled last week due to suspected presesnce of E.coli, has been given a clean bill of health by state officials, according to this report. On the heels of this report, however, comes this one about another raw milk-related E.coli case in the Seattle area.

Via The Ethicurean

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