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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I'll Take "Feed the Cows Grass for $1000, Alex"

Here is an article from last week's New York Times: Scientists Look to Vaccines in the War on E. Coli

E.coli 0157:H7 has been in the news quite a bit of late. This is the particularly virulent strain that causes humans so many problems, up to and including death. When the news first broke of E.coli-tainted spinach, the FDA went after the spinach growers and there was talk of irradiating produce to ensure no bacteria survived. What a typical response to look for a proximate cause instead of the ultimate one. Then it was green onions at Taco Bell. I mean, as if Taco Bell food couldn't be bad enough for your health, there was the threat of picking up something more viscous than the typical "next morning" response.

Well, now people are starting to look to the ultimate cause of E.coli 0157:H7, namely cows. Here's a brief primer: all mammals have E.coli in their digestive tracts. You do, I do, my dog does, your cat does, the horses that ran in this Saturday's Kentucky Derby do, and the little mouse that makes you shriek in fear does. It's all well and good until you go intermixing E.coli strains; 0157:H7 comes from cows. It is then passed out through the manure where it taints ground-water, which is sprayed on crops, and is used as fertilizer, mostly on organic crops since commercial agriculture uses chemicals. "So we should monitor produce suppliers to make sure they are not using E.coli-tainted water and manure!" Not so fast. Sure, there should be some burden on the produce growers, but let's look for the ultimate cause, not just a proximate one. The ultimate cause is the root; eliminate it and you eliminate the proximate ones. This strain of E.coli comes from corn-fed cows. The corn acidifies the stomach, which kills nearly all E.coli except this acid-resitant strain, which proliferates in the gut of the cows. An easy way of getting rid of E.coli 0157:H7 is to take away the acidic environment that it thrives in, by feeding the cattle grass. It has actually been shown that taking a cow off of corn and feeding it grass for only 5 days reduces E.coli 0157:H7 levels 1000-fold. Sounds pretty simple.

Too simple in fact. Oh, it would work, but that would be too easy of a solution. We need vaccines for the cows and for humans! Why do something simple like feed the cows a natural diet, even if only for 5 days, when we can simply pump them and ourselves full of more drugs? Ridiculous! I can't imagine the cost of 5 days of hay feeding being that prohibitive, especially when it comes to consumer health. And this my friends is the ultimate cause: corn. If we switch the cows to hay for 5 days (or better yet forever, as in grass-fed cows), the incidence of E.coli-illness would drop off drastically. We can vaccinate and irradiate and otherwise treat the symptom, or we can go to the source and eliminate it there. Would you cut down a tree by chopping off it's branches or would you cut off the trunk and destroy the roots?

We'll never learn until all Americans are vaccinated and drugged to the moon and back.