The New Poster Girl for Fighting E.coli and Fixing Our Food System

I’ve been reading quotes and references over the last couple weeks from the mother of a two-year-old girl who became seriously ill last fall from E.coli. In today’s New York Times, testimony by the mother, Elizabeth Armstrong of Indiana, to Congress last week, is put into large type in the business section: “You live in the United States of America and this isn’t supposed to happen.”

What happened to her is a situation not unlike what happened to the children of Mary McGonigle-Martin and Melissa Herzog. Her daughter became so sick, from HUS, that her kidneys shut down, and now it’s said she may well need a kidney transplant. The main difference is that the Armstrong girl got sick from spinach, and the Martin and Herzog children appear to have become ill from raw milk.

What’s most intriguing to me is Armstrong’s solution to the problem. According to a profile done of her family in a local paper, she has decided that the best way to protect her family is to keep fresh produce out of her kitchen, and instead rely on white grains and canned vegetables.

Of course, she is free to eat whatever she wants. It just feels sad. Sort of the equivalent of a crime victim deciding to buy a gun and lock himself into his house. A search for a solution, any solution.

What bothers me further about her approach is that she is becoming a “poster girl” for problems in our factory agricultural system, and her message is that we (our government, corporations, etc.) must eliminate all the bacteria in our food, no matter what or how.

She’s part of an hour-long CNN documentary, “Danger: Poisoned Food”, being shown this evening at 8 (EST). Excerpts, including part of an interview with Armstrong, can be viewed online. (Her interview is headlined "Surviving E.coli.)

Though I haven’t seen the CNN program, I got a feeling for where it’s headed by watching the slide show about protecting lettuce—it features a supposed food expert showing us how to clean iceberg lettuce, an essentially worthless food to begin with. (Its heading is "Making Lettuce Safer".)

I suspect that what’s going to come out of things like Armstrong’s congressional testimony and the CNN documentary is a call for more regulations that will, finally, at last, solve the problem of leaks in our factory agricultural system (and more money for the poor strapped federal Food and Drug Administration). No questions at all, of the kind raised by many on this blog, about the dynamics of E.coli that make some people sick and don’t affect others, approaches to building up immunity, ideas for further understanding the conditions under which it thrives, and trying to understand what its relationship is to a global factory system of agriculture.

If you want something more uplifting, I suggest taking a look at a segment from a documentary-in-progress, "We Are What We Eat". I don't fully understand where it's headed commercially, except that a few people in a PR/advertising firm seem to be producing it. The 15-minute excerpt features about a dozen highly articulate experts providing sound bites about what's wrong with our current approach to food production--people like Charles Walters of Acres USA.

There are also several individual short segments; I recommend the one by Joel Salatin, “Sissy Farmer”, in which he describes a sustainable farming system. A segment, “Raw Ninja”, features old friend Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures, the California raw milk producer. He comes across as a preacher for raw milk, a little strong for my tastes. His message seems to be that raw milk is the cure for all our ills and, what the hell, there’s also a lot of money in it.

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There's some interesting commentary about the deficiencies of "consumer driven" health care from Andrew Fischer following a previous posting about vaccines. He makes the point that the majority of medical expenses are apart from any choice that individuals have about treatment, such as end-of-life care. Anna's consideration of European system confirms something I've suspected as well. There are those in this country (mostly doctors) who would argue that the tendency to avoid aggressive treatment, such as in prostate cancer, leads to higher mortality rates.

David,

Thank you for alerting us to Andrew Fischer's comments regarding consumer-driven healthcare.

To Andrew Fischer:

I believe in HSAs because I believe that individuals with freedom to make their own health choices will become healthier. I believe that grass-roots change for the positive in health is not only possible, but likely. I also believe that, given a chance, the change would be far-reaching, but even if true health was achieved by only a small percentage of the currently sick population, we would have cost savings of dream-only size, and more important, massive decreases in human suffering.

At present, our medical machine (which is demonstrably uninterested in health while fantastically interested in early detection and treatment) has all the power. That machine, we must not forget, has presided over epidemic-style rises in cancer, heart and vessel disease, degenerative conditions, digestive disorders, behavioral disorders, and others, and that over a short three or four generations. Those are the very diseases that created what you rightfully lament as wildly expensive (and terribly heart breaking) end-of-life care. I cannot see how anyone with any perspective on our medical history can be satisfied with the current outcomes. But I do see that those who believe industrialized medicine should continue its reign unimpeded will see no good in HSAs.

That we have been so fully indoctrinated into the pathology-fix-as-healthcare model is demonstrated by your allusion to the cost savings associated with taking medications for chronic conditions when youre supposed to. That is a commonly held, and dangerous, half truth. Take diabetes, for example. Chronic insulin is in fact cheaper than occasional hospitalization for hyperglycemic episodes. But that very narrow equation presumes the disease state as a given. What if the presence of diabetes was not a given? What if diabetes could be prevented?

The fact is that our medical machine promotes a diet that predisposes toward diabetes (with, among other things, a food pyramid that sends consumers to the middle of their grocery stores to buy packaged, processed, refined, chemicalized carbohydrates as a base diet). How humane is it to virtually encourage a disease, then charge its victims (exhorbitantly!) for chronic management? How cheeky is it to then suggest that those not following doctors orders are responsible for the disease? Or even for the high cost of management!? (Of course diabetes is just one example--there are many more conditions that fit the same mold.)

Your suggestion that going to the doctor will give people reason to pursue a healthier diet and engage in more exercise is very wrong. Physician utilization (as well as utilization of other standard non-physician medical care) is way, way, way up, and rising, on a per capita basis. The more it goes up, the sicker we become.

The answer is the same for our current medical mess as it was for the founding of America: Give individuals freedom to do as they choose. Will there be tragedies? Yes! Will they matter? Yes! But is the answer to trade individual errors for a massive, expensive, and homogenized failure? No!

I watched the show this evening. Of course it triggered many horrible memories for me. My heart goes out to this family. Their daughter has serious ongoing medical issues, with a kidney transplant to look forward to sometime within the next 10 years. It makes me feel sick just typing that. This could have been Chris fate, but it wasnt. I thank God everyday that he came through this with such a positive outcome.

Chris, Lauren and this little girl all suffered the same illness. Chris Kidneys are functioning at 95 percent, I think Laurens are at 75% and this little girl is at 25%. Being so much younger put her at a disadvantage.

Watching the show did confirm why I have the fear of eating spinach and lettuce. On a rational level, I know the chances of getting e-coli are slim, but after what we experienced, I just cant bring myself to take the chance.

Thanks to this blog, I understand the bigger picture of this whole issue and that a diet with fewer grains, more probiotics and locally grown fruits and vegetables is the best insurance policy against food borne pathogens. We live in a complicated world and Im not sure it is going to get any less complicated.

Hi Mary,

Some more thoughts on this difficult subject...

I had a patient once who reached in to clear her lawn mower's grass shoot, with the motor running. She nipped off the tips of two fingers. A year later the same lady showed up with another injury to the same hand, obtained in the same way. As you might imagine, we considered her a slow learner.

Certain reactions that cause us to draw back are simply common sense. But where is the end point to that sort of thing?

An infamous e-coli/HUS story took place some years ago in Atlanta, with a small boy who became ill after swimming in a water park, the water unfortunately innoculated by sewage. And as has been noted here and elsewhere, many common vegetables have been implicated, and our much-beloved feedlot beef (centrally processed, of course) is the most common carrier and cause of e-coli poisoning. How far can we, should we, run?

As you know, my answer is to encourage food decentralization (and other system decentralization!), and to take a calm walk (not a wild run) toward natural food and clean living.

Can that work for everybody? Probably not, though most people should be able to move in that direction (and would be glad to do so if they understood the reasons). I believe we should be diligent and caring enough to share the reasons, as you and others do on this blog.

Hey Dave,

Companies like Astra-Zeneca and Monsanto creating food that actually causes disease is SO 20th century. Now they are creating made-up diseases without going to the extra trouble. Haven't you seen the new "Havidol" medication? http://www.havidol.com/

Kirsten,

Thanks for the chuckles. I suppose there will be more than a few out there taking that thing seriously, and asking their doctors for a prescription...

For some reality-based humor, here's a story for you that I was reminded of by the woman in the photograph on the havidol page (the page alternates between a female and male model).

Years ago I was doing some design consulting for a pharmaceutical company trade show exhibit that was, among other things, promoting a new anti-psychotic drug. The manufacturer sent us what were to be before and after pictures of a psychotic patient. The "before" shot was an obviously distraght middle-aged man. The accompanying text explained how he was unable to be productive at his job as a machinist. The "after" shot was to demonstrate his condition "managed" but the picture showed him sharpening a chisel with what can only be described as a dangerous, leering grin.

We rejected the photo of course, but I didn't learn until much later in life that the photographer might have been onto something.

I read some of the CNN reports, having missed the show. Given the poor reporting (HUS not explained as a medical mistake, flat statements implying that all cattle carry 0157:H7), I despair for this country and worry that the ensuing paranoia and predictable legislation will tighten authorities' grips on the food supply to further, dysfunctional results. Then I read the Wall Street Journal this morning ("With Corn Prices Rising, Pigs Switch to Fatty Snacks") where they describe not only pigs, but cattle being fed fast-food waste (especially near Hershey, PA where the animals get chocolate as well as cookies, licorice, cheese curls, candy bars, french fries, frosted wheat cereal and peanut-butter cups - as well as, the occasional shredded cardboard from packaging). And then the capper: "In ethanol-producing states, some farmers have been able to mitigate high corn costs by feeding their animals dried distillers' grains, a corn mash left over from ethanol production." Have we learned nothing in 100 years? Distillery dairies, all over again.

Im glad the Armstrong's message got to congress and I hope something is done about this!! The vegetable growers as well as the RAW MILK dairy should be more responsible. I dont blame the Armstrongs at all for being cautious after their daughter almost died. I know the exact feeling they have. I watch my daughter everyday go through the challenges she is having over poorly regulated foods.!