The Dirty on Dirty Cow Poop: E. Coli

E. coli, that plucky little strain of intestinal bacteria, has popped up in the news again. You’re probably pretty familiar with its recent appearances (Taco Bell, packaged spinach, alfalfa sprouts, and most famously ground beef – all pretty Primal foods, except for, well, one of ‘em). You may even be alarmed at its apparent ubiquity in our food supply. This time, though, you have no reason to fear it – it was traced back to a Danville, VA Nestle plant pumping out infected cookie dough – unless you’re having one of those hazy 80/20 days where it’s more like 20/80 and you wake up covered in wrappers with that weird chemical film in your mouth that can only come from processed junk. If that’s the case, you might want to exercise caution.

So what is E. coli, exactly?

With around a hundred strains currently known to man, Escherichia coli are actually pretty common in warm-blooded animal intestines – and mostly beneficial. Some E. coli strains produce Vitamin K2, while others actively fight other harmful intestinal bacteria. In fact, the dangerous strain is quite rare, and it’s totally innocuous to the original host animal (cows, sheep, chickens, etc). The strain we’re worried about is Escherichia coli O157:H7, which was only discovered in 1982. This is the one that just seems to show up everywhere and cause general mayhem in the affected – including severely bloody stool, abdominal cramps, and even death via kidney failure. It’s nasty stuff.

What’s even nastier is how it’s transmitted to our food. Now, remember that E. coli resides in the intestines of the animals; it’s not embedded in the muscle meat or the fat. If you cut a fresh ribeye from a still-warm carcass of a cow that had E. coli living in its gut, that steak will be totally safe. The only way E. coli gets into our food supply is by improper handling. Imagine that same ribeye, only smeared in factory farmed cow manure, and you’ll get the idea.

Wait… what? How the hell does cow manure get mixed in with our meat? And what about the spinach and the lettuce – how do they get involved?

Experts think most contamination happens immediately post-slaughter, when the job is particularly messy and workers are maybe a bit to preoccupied with the proceedings to be mindful of health standards. Things get even worse when you’re dealing with a factory farm setting. The animals are often standing in knee-high pools of their own feces, the pace is relentless, and the work is assembly line style. There’s no time to wash up or switch gloves or be careful because there’s always another malnourished, frightened, grain-fed, manure-soaked animal coming down the line. And when those same manure-strewn facilities also process produce along with the livestock, that’s when you start getting infected spinach, onions, or even apples. Maybe it’s the infected sewage being used to irrigate fields, or maybe it’s contaminated manure being used for fertilizer. It could even be the increasing prevalence of food processing in the fields, whereby workers will actually trim the fruit and vegetables immediately after picking it (to save even more time and money, of course). You think they’re washing their hands or being especially cautious? They’re probably being paid peanuts for hours of backbreaking work, and anything that will slow them down just means fewer peanuts. If the fields they’re kneeling in were irrigated or fertilized with infected manure, the chance of contamination increases.

After the 2006 spinach outbreak, the farms looked everywhere for the cause. E. coli was found in river water, in cow manure, and in the fields themselves, but the ranchers noticed some broken fences and feral pig tracks and responded by eliminating all the wildlife they could. Deer were shot, frog ponds were poisoned, and local vegetation that attracted wildlife was removed. A 2-year study of wild animals in the area has mostly vindicated the wildlife; out of 866 sample animals, only four had the virulent strain. Out of 184 feral pigs tested, only one was contaminated. Still, it only (theoretically) takes one filthy pig to ruin things for everyone.

What surprised me was that the ranch in question – Paicines Ranch of the Salinas Valley in Central California – is by no means a factory farm. It raises grass fed, pastured animals, and it leases out land to organic spinach farmers. These were animals eating their natural diets in plenty of open rangeland, and the ranchers were handling their meat safely (there was no contaminated meat, for example), but the bacteria was still present. The bacteria will always be around in some form or another, because it isn’t harmful to the animal. The problems (for us) arise when we collectivize – when we raise huge numbers of cattle alongside leafy greens and chickens and apples, all using the same water source and, in some cases, the same food source. And they magnify when we emphasize speed over safety, quick money over proven quality. When time is of the essence, mistakes will be made and shortcuts will be taken. Occasionally, people will get sick, or even die.

Grok would probably say that the problem is with agriculture itself, but the fact remains that we’re pretty much stuck with relying on agriculture for our food. That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to rely on Big Agra for everything. If we were to focus on the smaller, family farms that still take pride in their products, that can actually take the time to properly slaughter and package meat and ensure that cross-contamination is avoided, we’d be taking a huge step toward avoiding harmful E. coli altogether and would be reducing the chances of a wide scale problem. Visit your local farmers’ market and talk to the meat dealers. Get to know your food and where it comes from. When you do take home some meat or veggies, be safe. I can’t recommend heating your steak until it’s leather as per the government recommendations, but you might want to cook factory farmed meat a little longer if that’s all you can get. Wash your veggies, especially non-organics from the supermarket. And by all means, stay away from cookie dough!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

21 thoughts on “The Dirty on Dirty Cow Poop: E. Coli”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Great article Mark. For anyone interested in a more in-depth analysis of this topic I would suggest reading “The Omnivores Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. It is a wicked read.

  2. I absolutely second reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” it’s an excellent look at our food culture. But, if you don’t have time to read a 464 page book, “In Defense of Food,” also by Pollan is based on the same principals and is much easier to get through. Both books, along with “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver, were what got me started on a journey to healthier and more local eating in the first place. I’m so glad that with every single e. coli scare there has been in the last 2 years I could be sure that my husband and I weren’t affected. No fake peanut butter or peanut butter products, no packaged spinach, no CAFO ground meat, no prepackaged cookie dough…I’m sure I’m missing one or more of the outbreaks 🙂 It’s so much better to know where your food comes from!!!

  3. I would recommend checking out the movie “FOOD Inc.” as well. My girlfriend and I went and saw it last night and it was quite eye opening. We’re about to move to Texas from Las Vegas (No agriculture here what so ever!) and we are looking forward to the local farmers markets, joining a CSA, and will be checking into a protein share too.

  4. When you eat CLEAN (no pun here. Your diet concerns are nil. CLEAN is the key.

    The movie Food, inc is not an indictment against eating meat but an indictment against corperate farming practices that has lead to many outbreaks of bad vegetables and grains (which are never good) too.

    McDonalds and fast food in general serve meat- this does not make them good for primal or low carb diets.
    WHOLE FOODS cooks everything in Canola oil, sweetens all sauces and loves to be carb heavy with food choices. They are equally as bad for low carb diets too. Go Clean.

  5. I saw Food, Inc. with my mom last night and found it to be quite slow. Moreover, there was little information presented that I was not already well aware of. If you’ve spent the (seemingly) countless hours on MDA or/and read the PB, this movie will probably come off as elementary.

  6. E. Coli lives on the surface. When cooking a steak you only need to get the outside to over 160f for a few seconds to kill anything harmful. If you have “grill marks” on the meat, the inside can be raw and you are still safe. Make sure they are real grill marks though, some places paint those marks on.

    Ground meat is all surface though, so you need to cook it through.

    As for spinach: get a cheap “salad spinner” and get in the habit of rinsing your own salad. It isn’t perfect, but it will help a lot.

    Of course if you have reason to suspect something either cook it through, or throw it out (the latter preferred but some of you are on a budget).

    1. There is at least one exception to the rule on steaks and that is when they have been mechanically tenderized or “needled.” Some major retailers, to make their otherwise tough steaks more tender, use machines that poke many tiny holes into the steak. This carries surface bacteria inside the beef which would then need to be treated the same as ground beef. It’s worth asking the meat cutter if the steak has been mechanically tenderized, just to be safe.

      1. Oh yes that’s scary! I watched a TV programme a while back where they were injecting chicken meat with “mix”, which seemed to consist largely of water with various salts and protein.

        One German scientist was explaining his process whereby the DNA of the protein source was scrambled, so you couldn’t tell if your beef or chicken was full of pork protein. How nice for the Jewish and Muslim customers I thought (then I wondered how Primal Kosher or Halal meats are).

        I just watched another TV programme where the slurry from intensive reared pigs was watered down and sprayed onto the land – and of course the spray would drift in the wind. Dead pigs were also dumped into the slurry lagoons.

        Where such techniques are illegal or controlled they simply switch production to the Third World or Eastern Europe: a good reason to avoid Big Name branded meat products.

  7. After reading “In Defense of Food” and watching Food INc, and now this…it might be a hint for me to become a vegetarian?

    I am an Argentinian rancher’s son and one of the things we still have down there is an intimate relationship and interaction with the food chain. We run a small farm, all organic, all sustainable.

    Its important to know where our food come from. yes. But its even more important to understand our roll in the equation and be a participant in the process of keeping the balance of nature.

  8. Another great reason to by pasture raised meat!

    Here’s something interesting I recently read about E. coli. Stomach acid normally kills it. However, grain fed cattle supposedly produce acid resistant strains of E. coli that can withstand the acidity of human stomach acid.

  9. “-unless you’re having one of those hazy 80/20 days where it’s more like 20/80 and you wake up covered in wrappers with that weird chemical film in your mouth that can only come from processed junk.”

    this sentence made my day. how funny!

    1. IMO yes as long as it has gotten itself up to a suitable temperature. Our local farmers use animal manure and even human manure and industrially produced compost from food waste for growing arable crops. Probably not such a good plan for vegetables or especially salad crops though, just in case. It needs to be placed in sufficiently large piles to “cook” and is turned using JCBs so it heats itself through and through.

      One batch last year was obviously not processed well enough, it stank to high heaven and generated hordes of flies until it was spread and buried, but usually a combination of bacteria fungi etc. digest it down to a crumbly brown mass that smells almost edible.

  10. When I was a kid, I ate a whole pound of cookie dough over the course of a lazy summer afternoon. Fortunately, my step mother made it from scratch so there was minimal risk of contamination. Unfortunately, I still ate it. I can’t imagine doing something like this again, or ever letting my kids do this, now that I’ve come to my nutritional senses!

  11. People are to worried about every little thing. With pesticides and such veggies can kill you to. I eat meat to gain muscle, and I am in great shape.

  12. I’m not sure how much I love meat after reading this. I agree with Rob on the whole vegetarian idea. Doesn’t sound too bad to not eat meat anymore.

  13. I’m sorry for the people in Vancouver and regions around the city, but your Government allowed “halal” meats to be marketed there without any thought and setting any standards, and – as the saying goes – “as you sow, so shall you reap”.
    I have witnessed first hand the filthy and totally unhygienic methods used in those slaughter houses (in BC, in the UK, and in the Middle East). I lived in the Vancouver area for many years and saw this coming.
    Here is what I witnessed in one Surrey farm – the workers in those slaughter places do such things as go to the washrooms to do a “big job”, and then (because of their religion and custom) wipe and wash their aresholes with their left hand. The hands are then rinsed briefly under the tap, and then immediately used to handle the meats being packaged. It doesn’t take much imagination and brains to see how the e-Coli get into the meat. Ughhh! There is no mandatory hygiene training in any of these places, and the customers are damned lucky to have not been hit with e-Coli sooner than now.
    The Government of BC and its so-called Food Safety bureaucracy have failed the people of BC utterly, and should be shamed and taken to Court. Of course, with such a heavy emphasis on PC in British Columbia and Canada, the whole thing will be swept under the carpet – because one cannot criticize a religion (by the way, isalm is NOT a religion but a totally ideological death cult) – oh no, do not criticize the religion for putting crap into your meat products in BC and Canada! Where is Mark Steyn? I’d like him to take this up in BC. The rest of the BC press is too cowardly to take something like this up, because they must stick to PC.
    I suggest that you all demand from the Government that ALL halal meat products be clearly labeled throughout Canada, doesn’t matter where it is being sold, and then BOYCOTT it totally. It’s the only way to look after your health and safety.