Don’t blame the lettuce! According to the Food and Drug Administration, the large E. coli outbreak which has just happened, caused by contaminated romaine lettuce, may have been caused by a factory farm.
A factory farm is a farm where the animals are crowded together in large numbers. Conditions are often abusive, and as we’ve seen from shocking videos, sometimes deliberately cruel.
E. coli bacteria live in the environment, animals’ intestines and in fecal matter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dangerous strains of E. coli, as well as salmonella and other foodborne pathogens, are derived from animal (and occasionally human) feces, and can end up in the ground water, streams and rivers. “The bacteria in animal waste could make their way into water one of two ways,” explained University of Florida food safety expert Keith Schneider. “Water can run downhill, especially after rain, and make it into an irrigation ditch, or water can seep into an underground aquifer.”
A likely reason for why romaine lettuce is susceptible to E. coli contamination is that the runoff from cattle reaches the irrigation water for fields where romaine lettuce grows, said Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and a food safety specialist at N.C. State University in Raleigh. In similar outbreaks in the past, contaminated produce was traced back to neighboring livestock operations. In this case, the FDA surmises that the contaminated water was either used to irrigate the lettuce or mixed with pesticides (a common method of dilution) before being sprayed on the plants.
These kinds of outbreaks have been happening again and again. Not all the harm from animal agriculture is done by meat itself. Sometimes it’s right next door!
“Warning: May Contain Feces” is the latest proposal for a label on chicken, from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), after a study found fecal contamination in half the chickens bought at 15 different supermarket chain stores in 10 different cities across America.
Yuck! Poop is the last thing anyone wants in their food. It’s gross, to say the least, and it shows just how filthy are the conditions in which we raise chickens today, and just how unsanitary the slaughterhouses are. It’s also potentially quite dangerous if you ingest it, because the poop contains E. Coli and may also contain other disease-causing bacteria, as well as parasites. It’s a bad situation for both human and bird alike, and it may be about to get even worse.
In factory farms, the way most chickens are raised, the chickens are jammed into cages so tightly that they can’t even turn around, and the cages are stacked one on top of the other. When the chickens poop, it winds up on the birds below, not to mention on the workers, who may inadvertently spread it around.
How does fecal contamination make its way from chicken farms and slaughterhouses to the plastic-wrapped packages at your grocery store? It’s an even dirtier business. A large chicken processing plant may slaughter more than 1 million birds a week. Chickens are stunned, killed, bled, and sent through scalding tanks. These tanks of water transfer feces from one dead bird to another.
After scalding, feathers and intestines are mechanically removed. Intestinal contents can spill onto machinery and contaminate the muscles and organs of that chicken and the birds that follow.
The carcasses are then rinsed with chlorinated water and, theoretically, checked for visible fecal matter. But slaughter lines process up to 140 birds per minute, and federal food safety inspectors are allowed little time to examine each carcass.
That could soon change—for the worse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture may begin to allow chicken plants to conduct their own inspections and speed up lines to 200 birds per minute. That will make it even harder for inspectors to detect contamination.
While consumers are counseled by the USDA to apply high cooking heat to poultry products, this treatment simply cooks the feces along with the muscle tissue, and does nothing to remove it from the ingested product.
The chicken poop is just the latest addition to the long list of objectionable “ingredients” to be found in chicken. Other ingredients include artery-clogging saturated fat, cholesterol, antibiotics, and cancer-causing accumulated agricultural toxic chemicals, such as herbicides and pesticides (from the feed) and industrial pollutants such as dioxins (from the environment). There are also various kinds of disease-causing bacteria, many of which are resistant to antibiotics. Sixty percent of chicken has been found to be contaminated with Campylobacter – a prime culprit behind many cases of food poisoning. Chickens are also mixing vessels and reservoirs for breeding the influenza virus.
We can also wind up eating chicken poop indirectly when we eat beef. As gross as it seems, chicken poop is also intentionally fed to cows (and inedible cow parts are also fed to chickens). In this way, prions, the infectious proteins that cause mad cow disease, may continue to be cycled back into cattle feed and complete the cow “cannibalism” circuit blamed for the spread of “Mad Cow” disease. Other diseases may be transmitted in this way as well.
But most chicken poop winds up being eaten by the environment. We’re talking about a major source of water pollution, when one considers that we raise nine billion (that’s nine billion not nine million!) chickens every year here in the US alone. The chickens’ waste products are stored in huge piles and lagoons. When these lagoons leak, or are flooded by a rainstorm, they cause massive amounts of water pollution.
So if you still eat chicken, and are having a hard time giving it up, why not give one of the many chicken substitutes a try? They’re now widely available at natural food stores and co-ops throughout the region. You can find everything from faux “chicken” patties to nuggets. These products, always popular at Vegfest, get better and better every year. Some of them taste and smell so much like chicken that many cats start to meow when they are prepared.