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Foodborne Illness Wrap-Up: The Role of Your Health and Your Food’s Health

One of the things I love about doing this blog is the continual incentive to examine different angles of issues, dig up varying resources around questions and discern ways our smallest choices establish our broader health. Much of what I discuss here involves avoiding chronic diseases – the lifestyle conditions that plague our modern Korg society [1]. And given the stats, it makes sense to give these the majority of attention. Still, other concerns exist that grab people’s curiosity. Whatever the presiding health headlines [2] are in a given week/month, I find I’ll get messages about these topics from readers. And such was the case with the foodborne illness theme.

Truth be told, it’s not something I personally think much about. As I mentioned in Monday’s Dear Mark [3], I eat raw oysters without a second thought. I’ve written in the past about rare meats, and I believe in eating dirt when homegrown or reputably sourced, organically grown veggies offer it. That said, I’m a robust person with good gut health [4]. I eat foods that have been raised as naturally as possible because I consider it worth the benefit to my well-being [5] and because I have the means and opportunity to do so.

Why Take a Balanced Approach to Foodborne Illness?

I recognize that not everyone lives the way I do. Even within the MDA community, there’s a whole lot of diversity [6]. I’m not just preaching to the fully converted here, although I learn a great deal from those who have taken the Blueprint and chosen to run with it in their everyday lives.

Some in the community here are still living with poor or mediocre health—perhaps with compromised immune systems [7]—as they contemplate or work their way toward a version of Primal living that can serve their needs. Others are significantly older than I am and might be ambivalent about the risks of some choices. Still others are looking to feed a family with little ones [8]. Some might be well on their way to embracing many of the Primal principles but haven’t yet found or are unable to take advantage of the better food sources we share here. Others might have to make frequent Primal compromises because of job travel or other availability issues. I can speak generally about optimum Primal choices [9], but I can’t assume that all readers can or will or perhaps in every given instance should follow them.

This was my concern when I decided to take up the foodborne illness issue. I know some readers were a little taken aback by and even took issue with seeing some conventional sounding messaging, particularly in the last installment [10] about food storage and cooking. I get it. I’ll admit it even felt strange to go down that road—one of the reasons I think I’ve perhaps chosen to not take up the issue in the past.

As I mentioned in my first post [11] a couple weeks ago, addressing the “threat” of foodborne illness will never be about eradicating risk. That’s a naive proposition, and the attempt would likely lead people to make poorer food choices (and industry to further degrade food during processing).

And yet there’s enough health risk (at least in certain pathogens like E. Coli and salmonella) to take the issue seriously. The answer should ideally be the application of sound, reasonable strategies to minimize original contamination, pathogen spread and illness development.

And the risk varies. Some people would likely pay a bigger price from certain types of food poisoning based on their current health status. Others run a bigger risk because they eat food more likely to carry pathogens. That’s where more heavy duty recommendations come in like those in last week’s kitchen strategies post [10]. The fact is, conventional food obliges certain conventional precautions. And, frankly, some people just prefer the extra preventative measures for reasons that are none of my business. When it comes to to these ideas, I think it’s the old adage, take what works for you and leave the rest.

And yet… What about the fully Primal take? What do I personally do and might suggest as optional considerations for those who have no added risk factors and who live a healthy, Primal existence [12]?

Let me add my final two cents on the subject with these last two critical dimensions of foodborne illness risk and prevention. As always, I’m not offering medical advice to my readers—but lifestyle options for their personal deliberation. These last two themes are, of course, core Primal territory—and elements of the issue you don’t read much about in most discussions of food safety.

I referenced these last week as I explained what to look for in Part 3, but maybe I should’ve added “Wait for it…” because, for the reasons I described above, I felt beholden on this particular issue to lay out the more extensive cautionary explanations first—then a Primal perspective. Sure enough, however, for those who were wondering, here it is….

Food Sources: The Logic of Risk

We hear more these days about foodborne illnesses because mainstream media has gone the route of fear-mongering [13]. Scary sells, I guess. But there’s also the fact that much of our food supply is mass produced on factory farms (often not even in this country, let alone our personal localities) and then distributed across the nation if not globe. What’s that saying about one bad apple ruins the bunch?

Add to this concern the fact that processing facilities and distribution centers can harbor the pathogens of that one bad apple (or cucumber or tomato or box of sprouts or side of beef) and pass it on to whatever else goes through the machinery and storage units. Here’s where industry guidelines regarding sanitation can come in handy, but we’re dealing with a hardly foolproof system here, not to mention a grossly overburdened regulatory set of agencies (FDA and USDA).

While I’m glad those industry guidelines are in place given the mass production and corner-cutting system we have in place, I personally have more faith in knowing my food sources [14]—the more detail, the better. Let me share a story—not my own but a good example of what I mean.

As the bees and I were first talking about this subject a while back, one of the staff members shared something from her pre-California days. Back in her Midwest days, she regularly purchased a farm share each year from a regional uncertified organic farm that had one of the best reputations for its produce and member service. You could visit the farm, and talk with the farmers both onsite and at a couple large farmers’ market [15] venues in her metro area. Their website offered extensive explanations of the farmland, the varying crops, their growing techniques and natural means of pest control. Every week members got a letter explaining the produce that had been harvested and how it had been grown and stored or shipped.

One week, however, emails and letters went out as did those weekly letters explaining that the pepper fields had been subject to flooding. While workers had endeavored to harvest the field’s crop before the waters washed into the field, they were unsuccessful in picking everything before the field was slightly covered in the rain and overflow.

Some of the crop was disposed of, the communications explained. What the workers deemed salvageable was soaked in solutions of hydrogen peroxide and scrubbed out of concern that contaminated runoff from a nearby livestock field (not part of an organic farm) might have had contact with the field. Members were apprised of all the details, of the washing solution and other strategies used, advised of conventional precautions they could take on their own if they wished to use the peppers in that week’s shipment (bagged and contained separate from the rest of the week’s share).

The Worker Bee whose story this is followed the suggested precautions that week (even though most weeks she only lightly rinsed the farm produce) and made a delicious salsa [16] from these veggies of concern. In the end, no one got sick from those peppers or anything else from the farm, but (not surprising to me) their donations rose considerably that quarter, and they had more people sign up for the following year’s memberships than ever.

If this all sounds generous (it is) or even excessive, consider what you don’t know about your food—the fields it’s grown in, what surrounding elements might influence those fields, who harvests it and what sanitation amenities they’re offered. Would you know if fields were flooded and subject to possible contamination?

In terms of meats and poultry, would you know how the animals were fed, confined, medically treated and otherwise raised? When we’re talking about animals, we’re automatically talking about proximity to feces. Do you want your cattle sources regularly standing in several inches of excrement from thousands of their bovine compatriots in a CAFO lot [17], or would you feel better if they were allowed to graze freely over a large expanse? What does logic say about disease spread here?

This is why I’m such a fan of buying from small sources and knowing your farmer – whether it be from farmers’ markets, local meat share [18] farms or CSAs [19] or even from reputable online farm distributors. Even certain larger farming cooperatives offer more transparency than you’ll ever get from land run by an absentee Big Ag [20] company. Big corporations make their profit from bulk sales. Small farms or even forward-thinking cooperatives stay in business on solid reputation, customer experience and a quality product worth the extra money. Not to mention illnesses would likely be easier to trace (and faster to nip in the bud) in a smaller group of farm share members than a cross-national cohort. Personally, I don’t mind paying for that kind of accountability and transparency.

The Presence and Potency of Foodborne Pathogens: What the Research Says

As for the research, some sources suggest the picture is mixed. In terms of produce, much was made of a study back in 2004 [21] that found organic produce (9.7%) was more likely to test positive for E. coli and salmonella than conventional produce (1.6%). However, when researchers broke down the results further, certified organic farms (which are required to follow USDA regulations that are designed to eliminate pathogen presence in natural fertilizer) came up as 4.3%, and researchers labeled the difference between certified organic and conventional as statistically insignificant.

In terms of meat, even the USDA admits relevant research is “scarce.” (PDF [22]) While most existing research suggests there is no appreciable difference in actual incidence of bacterial pathogens in organic versus conventional meat, infections from conventional food sources tend to be more antibiotic resistant.

So, these might be the most “negative” studies and viewpoints, the most damning of organic and pastured food sources—except they’re not really. Is there, however, other research and evidence that organic or naturally (pastured) raised food is, indeed, safer than conventional? You bet.

Some research [23], indeed, suggests otherwise. When young cattle that had tested positive for E. coli 0157.H7, the type most responsible for human E. coli illness and death, they were separated into two groups—one raised indoors and one raised on pasture. Six months later those who were pastured showed no sign of E. coli, while all calves that had been kept in the barn still tested positive.

Likewise, cattle raised on pasture were were considerably less likely [24] (2% compared to 58% of feedlot cattle) to test positive for Campylobacter, the leading bacterial cause of acute diarrhea in first world countries.

Finally, consider this nugget. University of Nebraska researchers confirmed the results of an original Cornell University study showing that switching from a grain to a hay (grass) diet reduces the acid-resistant E. coli [25]. The important point is this: acid-resistant E. coli is harder for the human body to fight. The less acid-resistant E. coli is, the better chance your body has for avoiding actual illness.

Personal Hardiness and the State of Your Gut

Just as a natural diet can influence the potency of pathogens inside an animal’s body (example above), so our own gut health can steer how much of an impact a foodborne pathogen may have on your system.

Some of you have likely heard of the author Ben Hewitt, who a few years ago wrote the foodborne pathogen manifesto of a book called Making Supper Safe [26] (for anyone who feels particularly drawn to the subject). While you’ll find plenty of unsettling pathogenic descriptions and conventional sounding suggestions, he also makes no bones about the broken food system that presents novel human threats and a modern diet [27] that undermines our inherent internal defenses against infection. If you look into his biography, you’ll also find he and his family raise most of their own food [28] (including meat) and regularly eat fermented food for the sake of gut health.

This is not to claim (and neither does Hewitt) that those with a healthy gut biota will never contract foodborne pathogens or develop illness, even serious illness. It is to state the obvious point that the gut is an ecosystem in and of itself. The more naturally balanced its state [29], the more equipped it is to do its central job of fending off pathogens (yeah, the GI tract isn’t just for digestion [30]).

Those who think we’ll be “protected” from pathogens of all kinds by super-sanitizing our lives and everything we come in contact with are living in a delusion (or an episode of The Jetsons). Our gut biota is something we build over a lifetime [8], and it requires input—challenges that work it and hone it and sometimes even reset it. It’s meant to be self-sustainable like a self-cleaning oven except modern agricultural developments, food ingredients [31] and environmental factors overwhelm those inner settings.

Our everyday exposures to run-of-the-mill soil and other mundane bacteria will in nearly every case protect us more than harm us. I’m not suggesting anyone go out and deliberately expose themselves to the likes of salmonella or any other pathogen. File that under the Darwin Awards [32]…. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that many if not the majority of farmers develop antibodies [33] to common pathogens carried by their animals. How much does this mirror our natural history and the biology that was honed around it?

And to what degree are we compromising our natural fortification with the subpar diets and their impact on the makeup of our gut microbiota? Research, to my knowledge, hasn’t delved much into that yet, but we’re getting closer as scientists explore the issue from new angles—everything from following salmonella infections taking root in lab mice [34] to observing the inactivation of salmonella [35] by direct cell-to-cell contact with healthy gut bacteria. Add to this the therapeutic role of probiotic supplementation [36] in treating gastroenteritis [37] (one of the most common and serious effects of food poisoning), and you have a pretty compelling picture that suggests gut health matters—maintaining it for health and bolstering it in case of infection. Perhaps future recommendations for preventing foodborne disease will take into account healthy resilience as well as risk reduction. The intersection of conventional strategy with physiological logic, in this as in all issues, is a long-term prospect.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and for following this long and complicated but worthy discussion. I invite you to share your thoughts as always. Have a great end to your week.

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