That’s what Popeye would surely say: “What a preedickamink!”
All those years of pouring spinach down his gullet in order to build a strong body, and now he’d be hard pressed to find a supply.
The culprit is, of course, that old devil, the Escherichia coli bacterium. It seems like every time there’s a nationwide brouhaha over contaminated food, E. coli is at the center of it, and that’s certainly the case here. Since August 25, when the first case of illness was reported, anti-spinach fever, promoted by the government and fed by the sensation-seeking media—has risen to a near hysterical pitch.
By mid-September, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had cleared the supermarkets of all bagged fresh spinach after some 150 infections and one death that could be attributed to the “outbreak” of E. coli-related illness.
Dire warnings were issued, among others from Robert Brackett—director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition—who stressed the importance of stopping the bacterium at its source. “If you wash it, it is not going to get rid of it,” he said.
Placing his job at the very pinnacle of stewardship of the public safety (though struggling with his syntax), Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, the FDA's acting commissioner proclaimed that, “We need to strive to do even better so even one life is not lost.”
With many frightened citizens vowing never to touch spinach again, there has even been talk in Washington about a permanent ban on all bagged, fresh-picked, triple-washed greens.
Our regular readers will be aware, however, that we are eternally skeptical when the government says it is doing something for our own good, and so we decided to take a closer look at the spinach fear that has suddenly gripped the land. Was it justified, or was it an overreaction engineered, once again, by those zealous guardians of our welfare down in D.C.?
Well, you be the judge.
There are several important aspects of the story to keep in mind. First of all, hundreds of strains of E. coli bacteria already reside in your gut. In fact, you wouldn’t have intestinal health without them. They’re the good guys.
Unfortunately, they have a handful of cousins that can cause foodborne illnesses, and one—O157:H7—that is particularly toxic, and is responsible for most of the serious medical conditions associated with the bacterium.
Even if you do ingest the nasty O157:H7, however, you won’t automatically get sick. As our old friend, nutritional consultant Jon Barron put it, “those with healthy populations of beneficial bacteria in their intestinal tracts are virtually immune to problems. There is simply no room for ingested E. coli to take root, colonize, and multiply—not to mention the fact that the beneficial bacteria gobble up any stray E. coli they encounter. In other words, the outbreak has less to do with contaminated food than it does with the epidemic of compromised immune systems and intestinal tracts.”
This is why, even when we ingest O157:H7-contaminated food, the resultant illness will probably be self-limiting. The vast majority of those exposed are either unaffected, or have minor problems that clear up in one to three days. Only in about 5% of all cases is there severe poisoning.
Thus, if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re more likely to fall ill and run a greater risk of complications. Not a great surprise. And equally unsurprising is the behavior of government, which has been handed a golden opportunity to educate people about the importance of gastrointestinal health. Instead, our bureaucrats choose to disrupt the food business, bankrupting farmers along the way, all in a futile attempt to eliminate O157:H7 from the retail world.
Naturally, we are not advocating that contaminated food shouldn’t be pulled from stores. It should. We’re just adding some perspective to the Great Spinach Flap of ’06. Here’s some more: each year, E. coli poisoning causes 73,000 cases of serious illness and about 60 deaths. Yes, the proverbial bolt of lightning is more likely to take your life than this tiny animalcule; and yes, 150 cases/1 death is a tiny percentage of the whole.
There’s also another thing worth considering, the question of who benefits. From the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment website we learn that, “Most infections of E. coli O157:H7 come from eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef. Meat becomes contaminated in the slaughterhouse, and the bacteria are easily spread when meat is ground in the processing plant. Studies have shown that about half the cattle in feedlots carry this pathogen during summer months.” Worse yet, because of the willy-nilly use of antibiotics among modern herds, the strain borne by beef cattle is increasingly antibiotic-resistant.
Now the target of the spinach purge has been organically raised produce, at a time when it is claiming a bourgeoning segment of the market. Conventional growers, as well as the powerful beef industry, have plenty of friends in Washington. Since large agribusinesses have a vested interest in maintaining their own market share, while meat processors would rather we knew as little as possible about where our hamburger comes from, having organic vegetables transformed into a villain is welcome news to both.
So, is this an instance of a government on its toes, keeping us safe, or yet another overprotective effort by the nanny state? As we said, you decide.
Doug Hornig is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in Business Week, Playboy, and more. He has written nine books and is the author of the Daily Resource column on www.KitcoCasey.com. He is a regular contributor to What We Now Know (WWNK) – a free bi-weekly e-letter from Casey Research covering trends in investments, geopolitics, the economy, health, and technology. This article originally appeared in WWNK, and is used here with the gracious permission of Casey Research, LLC. To sign up for a FREE subscription to WWNK, or to check out past editions in the WWNK archives, please visit www.caseyresearch.com.