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What the New E. Coli Outbreak Means

It’s not just about some unwashed cucumbers

The Russians have stopped buying vegetables from Europe. Spain is furious that their farmers were blamed by the Germans for being the source of the contamination. And nobody knows where the problem really lies.

But that’s the least of it. The real issue is not simply that some particular farm is distributing contaminated vegetables. E. coli bacteria don’t grow on cucumbers or lettuce; they’re deposited by infected animals.

OK, so we just need to find those animals as well as the vegetables, yes? No, there’s more to it than that. Doctors treating the people who have ingested food with the bacteria on it have been being treated with antibiotics.

But the antibiotics aren’t working.

That means that the animals – probably cows – whose droppings found their way onto the vegetables, were carrying a strain of E. coli that’s resistant to antibiotics.

And the only good explanation for that is that the cows have been being given routine doses of antibiotics to ward off any possible infections in the crowded and sordid conditions that prevail at factory farms, and also to make them grow faster. But it’s well known that overuse of antibiotics is dangerous because it leads to new strains of bacteria that are resistant to the drugs.

Scientists, ecologists and animal protection groups have all been warning for years that this was a big problem waiting to happen.

And now it’s happened.

Experts around the world are quite nervous about the implications. As far away as Australia, scientists are warning of potential fallout.

“The source of these bugs is animals, usually food animals,” said Professor Peter Collignon, a specialist in infectious diseases and microbiology, on the Australian morning show, AM. “And this particular bug in Germany is also antibiotic resistant. So presumably it’s had its origin in food animals somewhere that were also exposed to antibiotics that I believe they shouldn’t have been exposed to.”

Collignon noted that once they’re in the human population, these bugs can spread around the world quite fast these days. And health authorities are warning people traveling to Germany to avoid raw salads and to wash their hands often.

In the U.K. another bacterial illness is discovered

Just as the antibiotic-resistant E. coli scare was growing in Germany, another super-bug was being reported in the U.K. This one is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – a.k.a. MRSA, a staph infection that can’t be cured by any known antibiotic.

This new bug has been growing in dairy cows. And while it can’t survive pasteurization, it can still be spread around by people who are in contact with the cows. And according to a report in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases,the bug appears to be on the rise.

A spokesperson for the trade group Dairy UK said that “the scrupulous hygiene practiced by Britain’s dairy farmers minimizes risks of transmission.” But the general public may not be convinced that every farm worker is indeed practicing “scrupulous hygiene.”

Instead, say consumer protection groups, it’s now more urgent than ever for factory farms to stop the routine dosing of their animals with antibiotics.

“In the relentless drive for increased per animal productivity,” said Helen Browning, director of the Soil Association, an organic food trade group, “dairy systems are becoming ever more antibiotic dependent. We need to get farmers off this treadmill, even if that means that milk has to cost a few pennies more. That would be a very small price to pay for maintaining the efficacy of these life-saving drugs.”

What do you say? Are you concerned about the potential of these bugs and drugs finding their way into your home? Let us know in a comment below or on Facebook.

What you can do: Wash everything thoroughly. Cook all animal foods thoroughly – better yet, avoid them altogether. Patronize local farm produce and nearby farmers’ markets.