And the E Coli Culprit Is...

Have you heard? The source of the killer e coli epidemic in Europe -- epicenter Germany -- has been identified. The culprit? Sprouts.

Yep, sprouts. Cute, nutritious, totally health-foody, utterly vegan sprouts. After all, they're kept damp and warm while they're growing. Get a germ in there with them, and you might as well have invited them to the bacteria version of the Ritz.

My point here is not to condemn sprouts, which are, indeed, highly nutritious so long as they're uncontaminated. Most of 'em are low carb, too. I've been known to sprout a few seeds in my day myself, and I've published several recipes that call for them.

No, my point is this: The vegetarian and vegan activists pretty commonly cite food poisoning as a compelling reason why we should shun meat. It is certainly true that meat can carry pathogens, and cheap hamburger is particularly hazardous, since any germs on the surface are mixed all the way through the meat in the grinding process, multiplying any taint there might be many-fold.

But how many fruit-and-vegetable based food poisoning cases have we seen in the past few years? There was spinach, remember? And peanut butter. I remember one with strawberries, too. And now sprouts are responsible for the worst e coli epidemic in -- I think forever.

Indeed, foods that are eaten raw are common vectors. I understand that this is the reason why many cultures from hot climates do not have a long tradition of serving raw salads -- they were too likely to cause illness, especially in a time when most crops were fertilized with manure. Cooked foods were safer.

This is not a call to quit eating raw vegetables, either. I am merely pointing out that the notion that meat is somehow uniquely dangerous where food-borne illness is concerned is specious. Too many food poisoning outbreaks are traceable to the most virtuous-sounding of foods.

I'm not against manure for fertilizer, by the way. I have chickens, and we use composted litter from their coop on our garden. You have to feed the soil something, and I'd far rather feed it manure than petrochemicals. Better for the soil, better for the plants, and with reasonable care, better for me.

Factory farming is a real problem, here, as is the meat-packing practice of grinding meat from many carcasses together; it takes one tainted carcass to spread germs to the whole batch. But we should remember that the farm that created the e coli-bearing sprouts was an organic operation, whatever that means -- I have no idea how big or small, but I have a hard time picturing an organic sprout growing operation the size of your average, say, caged chicken growing operation.

I personally count largely on keeping my immune system strong. Doesn't make me immune, but I'm hardly pristine in my food handling practices, I've been known to eat raw produce straight from the garden, and occasionally have purchased raw milk, and I haven't had food poisoning in... heck, I don't remember when. Long, long time ago. (FTR, "stomach flu" -- acute vomiting and diarrhea for a day or two -- is usually actually food poisoning.) Years and years.

If you're concerned, and particularly if, for any reason, you have a weakened immune system, it is an excellent practice to dunk your fruits and vegetables in a sink full of water mixed with 1/4 cup 3% peroxide (just good old drug store hydrogen peroxide) for a minute or two after bringing it home. I trust you know about stuff like washing your hands after handling chicken, and cooking it well. If you like your burgers on the pink side, take care where you buy your ground beef. I'd be more likely to buy the stuff ground fresh that day in the store, than to buy the prepackaged "chubs".

Most importantly, don't let the whole "Omigod, food might have germs!" thing convince you to eat all packaged, processed foods. If it won't support microbial life, it's not going to do much for a multi-cellular organism like you.

And anyway, how many people have you known who have died or been crippled by food poisoning? How many by diabetes, or heart disease, or morbid obesity?

Fear the right things.

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One of the worst food

One of the worst food poisoning outbreaks (maybe THE worst--1002 people were affected) happened in the late 80s at the Air Force Academy. I worked there at the time and recall cadets lying in the halls because there weren't enough beds for them. An investigation concluded that a hose was pushed down a drain and then used to wash produce.

For details, go to http://www.icd-online.org/an/courspdf/WHO-ICD%20FSN%202000%20(pdf)/FSN-2000%20PDF/POISON.pdf and scroll way down to Catering Incident Summary No. 1.