Prevent E. Coli by Changing Your Diet
By Susan Levin, R.D.
This opinion piece was published Oct. 5, 2007, in The South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Worried about beef? If the Topps Meat recall made you think twice about biting into a burger, you aren't alone. The company recently recalled almost 22 million pounds of frozen hamburger because of possible E. coli contamination, which has been linked to more than 25 reported illnesses in more than half a dozen states, including Florida.
Despite well-publicized efforts by the American Meat Institute to increase food safety standards, contaminated meat still finds its way into our grocery stores and restaurants. In fact, in June of this year, the United Food Group recalled 5.7 million pounds of beef, which was blamed for an E. coli outbreak in Western states.
The figures are grim. Every year, Escherichia coli 0157:H7 is responsible for approximately 60 deaths and more than 70,000 infections in the United States, and more E. coli infections in this country have been caused by eating ground beef than any other food. It's a critical public health issue, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and meat companies don't seem to be able to solve the problem.
As a dietitian, I think it's time for consumers to face the facts: Burgers can bite you back in a big way. And E. coli is not the only problem. There are other dangers associated with meat that even the most diligent food inspector can't protect the public from. Our high-fat, meat-heavy diets are creating a public health disaster.
Meat contributes to obesity and heart disease, and it has been linked to several forms of cancer, especially colon cancer. In fact, people who eat red or processed meat are 50 percent more likely to develop colon cancer.
Think chicken is a healthier or safer alternative? Think again. Last year,
reported that 83 percent of chicken sampled from supermarkets, natural food stores, and gourmet groceries tested positive for campylobacter and/or salmonella, two leading causes of foodborne illness. And in 2002, the USDA announced that 1.8 million pounds of turkey sent to schools and other food program recipients were recalled for possible contamination with the deadly listeria bacteria.
Even at its leanest — white meat, no skin, no added fat — chicken gets about 23 percent of its calories from fat. That's not much lower than lean beef, at 28 percent, and much higher than beans, rice, fruits, and vegetables, which usually derive less than 10 percent of their calories from fat. A substantial amount of the fat in chicken is artery-clogging saturated fat, and chicken is loaded with cholesterol: USDA figures show that a 3.5-ounce portion of beef has about 86 milligrams, and the same portion of skinless, white meat chicken has 85 milligrams.
Americans need to understand that meat consumption and intensive animal agriculture play key roles in the E. coli problem. Meat can become contaminated during animal slaughter, when E. coli bacteria can spread to various cuts of meat, equipment, and workers' hands. Animal agriculture can also contaminate vegetable crops, as occurred last year when spinach tainted with E. coli by manure from a nearby cattle ranch killed three people.
The Topps Meat recall will likely shame the USDA and the American Meat Institute into calling for more testing in slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants. But the best solution is to simply leave meat out of our diets.
People who follow meatless diets tend to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels than meat-eaters. They also tend to be slimmer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. And staying disease-free also means lower health care costs.
Today, Americans can enjoy a wide variety of meatless options, ranging from beans and rice to vegetable-based soups to veggie hot dogs and veggie burgers. Why take risks associated with meat when a vegetarian diet can help eliminate the risk of food-borne illness, improve overall health, and prevent disease?
Susan Levin is a staff dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC.