You are no doubt aware of the recent outbreak of food poisoning coming from fresh spinach. At least 100 people have become infected and at least one has died. The culprit in this infectious disease is a type of E. coli, a common bacteria found in our own GI tracts as well as in GI tracts throughout the animal kingdom. The particular bacteria causing this recent nasty outbreak is a strain called E. coli O157:H7.
Health officials nationwide are hot on the trail of this E. coli strain, trying to track down which spinach growers, shippers, and/or packagers are responsible for foisting this plague off on the rest of us. As an editorial in today’s New York Times points out, however, they are totally on the wrong trail.
We all have our own strains of E. coli in our own GI tracts that we live with in peaceful co-existance. When we get a dose of someone else’s E. coli, as long as they are a friendly strain, we do okay. When we get a dose of a foreign E. coli such as the strain found commonly in Mexico, for example, we often end up with a case of Montezuma’s Revenge that makes us miserable for the first few days after we get home.
The acidity of our own stomachs can usually wipe out a dose of normal E. coli that we pick up eating food that has been handled with (I got this from a medical school microbiology lecture, and it has stuck with me since) the freshly fecaled fingers of food servers or fruit and vegetable pickers. (That’s why your mother always told you to wash that apple before you ate it.) But the O157:H7 strain is a little different.

Your stomach juices are not strong enough to kill this acid-loving bacterium, which is why it’s more likely than other members of the E. coli family to produce abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and, in rare cases, fatal kidney failure.

This particularly virulent strain of E. coli comes from the GI tracts of cattle that have been fattened with grain–particularly corn–instead of grass or other silage. Grains and corn are not the natural foods of cattle, and when cattle are fed nothing but in an effort to fatten them, they develop highly acidic GI tracts. The E. coli O157:H7 is a strain that has evolved to live in this highly acidic environment, and, consequently, is immune to the acid in our own stomachs that is typically potent enough to knock out the regular garden-variety E. coli we most often encounter.
Beef cattle are not the only carriers of the O157 strain.

In 2003, The Journal of Dairy Science noted that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry O157. (Fortunately, food safety measures prevent contaminated fecal matter from getting into most of our food most of the time.)

As anyone who has been around cows of any variety knows, they defecate prodigiously. In the case of beef cattle and dairy cattle that have been corn fed, these patties are teeming with O157:H7, which can contaminate all kinds of things it comes into contact with, including the groundwater. As long as cattle continue to be corn fed, we continue to produce massive amounts of this virultent strain that will continue to find its way into water and other foods. In the case of the spinach, who knows? It could have been irrigated with water infected with O157:H7 from run off from a nearby feedlot.
How do we know that the next time we buy celery or lettuce that we won’t get a dose of O157:H7? We don’t, and unless we do something about the source of the problem, we run this risk more and more.
According to the above mentioned Journal of Dairy Science there is a solution.

When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

And as the Times points out

In a week, we could choke O157 from its favorite home — even if beef cattle were switched to a forage diet just seven days before slaughter, it would greatly reduce cross-contamination by manure of, say, hamburger in meat-packing plants. Such a measure might have prevented the E. coli outbreak that plagued the Jack in the Box fast food chain in 1993.

Because of the growing demand for grass-fed beef, more and more ranchers are opting to let their cattle graze, but we are a long way from the demise of the feedlot. As consumers we can do our part by voting with our dollars. Buy grass-fed beef everychance you get. If enough people insist, it will be better for us, the cows and the environment. The only losers as far as I can see would be the E. coli O157:H7.
Here is a great website telling you everything you need to know about grass-fed beef, including where to find it in your neck of the woods. Take your dollars and get out there and vote.


  1. Wow,
    That is absolutely fascinating. As a naturopathic doc, I have always been trained to trust in nature. Give the body what it needs for health, take away/reduce what is harming it, step back and let it heal. The main premise here is that we can’t possibly fathom the complexities of nature in its infinite wisdom, so the best we can do it let it do what it wants, because what it wants is right.
    I guess this is a shining example of the wisdom of nature, and what happens when you “tinker” with it. I love it whenever I come across yet another example of this scenario.
    Anyway, thanks for the posting. Scary, but fascinating.
    Daniel Chong
    p.s. I’ve been reading a bit about the people of Hunza. I’ve heard of them often in the past, being an avid follower of Weston Price’s research, but I’ve never really read much on them in particular. I was wondering what your opinion is of them. They eat an obviously healthy diet, void of all refined foods, purely organic, high in minerals and good fat, but about 50% grains. I’d just like to hear your take on them.
    Hi Daniel–
    If you want to find out about the Hunza and their ‘miraculous’ longevity, pick up a copy of the book ‘Why We Age’ by Steven Austad, which, in my opinion, is by far the best book out there on the aging process. He has an interesting section on the Hunza and other groups that supposedly live to advanced ages. The short answer is that they don’t. Get the book anyway.

  2. might as well give a plug for my favorite provider of grass fed steaks – the ribeyes are tasty and tender, once you get used to them, regular grain fed steaks just dont cut it!
    Hi mrfreddy–
    I feel the same way. Grass fed takes a little getting used to, but once you do, you (Or at least I) seem to prefer it.

  3. I suspect that the high incidence of H. pylori may also have something to do with a more grain-oriented diet for humans. H. pylori also loves to live in the acidic environments of our GI tract. I admit that I haven’t ran any search to see if there is any data that clearly shows if H. pylori infections have increased together with grain consumption in humans. Since the bacterium wasn’t recognized as ulcer-causing until a few years ago, I wonder if a correlation between ulcers and grain consumption would be more revealing.
    In any case, I think the NYT has a great point regarding how a change in animal diet doesn’t always come with great benefits for us.
    Hi Gabe–
    I suspect that you’re right. Back before everyone knew that H. pylori was the cause of ulcers, I always treated patients with gastric/ulcer pain with low-carb diets and it almost always resulted in an improvement if not an outright cure. I almost never had to give Tagamet or other such drugs.

  4. here’s a story about another type of “grass-fed” beef, ha haaa
    Farmers fed cows cannabis
    Five Romanian farmers are being investigated after police discovered they were feeding their cows cannabis.
    The farmers from Romanesti in Botosani county, told officers the drug helped the cows produce more milk.
    The farmer aged between 57 and 82, claim they didn’t know they were doing something illegal by growing the drug in their field
    Farmer Ion Astarastoaie said: “We grew it because the cows seemed to like it, and happy cows give more milk.”
    Hi MrF–
    Thanks for the anecdote. I’m sure the cows were extremely happy. And since THC is fat soluble, I’m sure the folks drinking the whole milk and cream were too.

  5. How timely, I actually have a shipment of Grassfed beef and beef fat coming in today.
    Dr. Eades, since were on the subject of corn, I was reading recently that when corn is on the stalk it is a vegetable, but when it’s off the stalk it’s a grain. Another answer I read was that when it’s soft its a vegetable, and when it’s hard it a grain, or something like that. This seemed a little odd to me. So, how are food groups truly demarcated, and where does corn fall? Thanks,
    Hi Neal–
    I don’t know about the on-the-stalk-off-the-stalk difference as far as being a grain or a vegetable. It looks a lot more like a big stalk of wheat to me than it does a cucumber plant, so I’ll go with grain. The USDA food database lists it both ways.

  6. Glad to have the scoop on this story.
    For several years my husband and I have been buying almost all our meat, eggs, and produce from the Moore Family Farm in Watseka, IL, which has a listing on the Eat Wild website you linked to.
    I highly recommend buying one’s meat and/or produce from regional, small farmers. The meat we eat comes from happy, grass- or otherwise-naturally-fed animals. I’ve visited the farm and have seen my future pork chops dashing around their very large, outdoor pen, have seen the cattle, lambs, chickens, and turkeys in their outdoor accommodations, and have seen the fields of produce. I cannot tell you how wonderful it feels to me to sit down to a meal in which I know where every bit of it came from, and to be able to do this frequently.
    And of course, the food tastes ever-so-much-moreso than anything we ever got at a grocery store. Those are really EGGs and CHICKENs and PORK CHOPs. I don’t have to worry about any “solutions” being injected into the meat or where it’s been or who has handled it. The food is absolutely delicious and it doesn’t even seem like I need to eat as much of it to feel satisfied (wonder if there’s any science on that?).
    We buy extra meat all summer and stock our freezer for the winter. We have a subscription for eggs year-round (just have to go someplace to pick them up). The produce only lasts from May to December, so we do actually have to buy at the grocery store if we want “fresh provisions” during the rest of the year. But there’s a lot I simply won’t put up with and will do without rather than eat whatever they’re selling at the grocery store (like strawberries).
    Hi Anne–
    You are on the right track. I’m a firm believer in buying locally and MD and I do as much as possible. The food always tastes better and is better for you. I always say that the single best thing you can do for your health is to spend more time in your own kitchen. A corollary to that is to spend more money at your local meat and produce outlets.

  7. Does this mean that people infected with this strand of E. coli and lying on their death bed could improve by eating a low carb diet?
    This kind of portrays the parents as the “health-nut” types who would be in to eating whole grain.
    Hi Martha–
    I don’t know if they would improve once they got to death’s door with a low-carb diet or not. Somehow I kind of doubt it. Once the kidneys start to go, you’re in real trouble.
    Thanks for the article.

  8. Dr. Eades,
    I recently got a blood sugar monitor because I figured the way my parents eat they must be flirting with diabetes. Turns out though, they have passed the fasting glucose tests I’ve given them (barely). So, I wanted to get their 2-hour post-prandial glucose measurement. I’ve read about the glucose drink but I wasn’t sure exactly what it consisted of (just 50g of sugar water or something?). What sort of drink or diagnostic meal would you suggest I use to test them?
    Hi Neal–
    The sugar drink is called glucola. I don’t know if it is available to the public or not, but you could try to track it down. You can make your own by mixing 50 grams of glucose, which can be purchased in bulk at most natural food grocers. As an alternative, I’ve read that since some people gag on the taste of glucola (I don’t find of offensive), 18 Brach & Brock jelly beans can be eaten instead (not the black ones).
    Good luck.

  9. I want to thank you for writing about this. My husband and I raise cattle and we do grain feed them to fatten them up for sale. Neither of us realized the danger present. I am just glad we have never used the manure for the garden. Though it is doubtful that I will be able to change the way my husband fattens the cows at least I can take extra care to make sure it doesn’t make its way into the house.
    Hi Kathy–
    Thanks for the comment. I would be very careful with the manure.

  10. Don’t really know just what the hell ya’ll are talkin’ about with the feedin’ cows and shit. But I do love the title of the thread.
    Thanks, Mark–
    I worked hard on it.

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