Avoiding peanut butter won't solve salmonella problem

It's as if the whole nation just acquired a peanut allergy. As a salmonella outbreak sickens hundreds of people across the country, federal health officials are warning consumers not to eat products containing peanut butter until they get more information about which products are behind the outbreak.

Peanut butter cookies, peanut butter crackers, even cereal that contains peanut butter - it's all off limits until further notice.

The proximate source of the outbreak, according to the Food and Drug Administration, is peanut butter and peanut paste made by the Peanut Corporation of America at its Blakely, Ga., processing plant.

Sound familiar? Once again, a previously innocuous food product is being linked to a life-threatening foodborne illness. In 2006, spinach was pulled off store shelves for a month due to E. coli. In 2008, the problem products were tomatoes, which health officials believed were behind a huge salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of Americans. And now peanuts are under scrutiny.

As a physician, I am profoundly troubled by this situation. Salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter - national outbreaks of foodborne illnesses are coming fast and furious, and federal officials seem to be scrambling just to warn consumers, let alone head off these problems at the source. Perhaps that's because regulators aren't focusing on the underlying problem.

Salmonella and E. coli are intestinal bacteria. But spinach has no intestine.

Neither do tomatoes. And neither do peanuts. When produce becomes tainted, it's usually because feces from an infected animal contaminated the fertilizer or irrigation water used in the fields. As a recent Pew Commission Report on industrial farm animal production noted, untreated animal waste harboring pathogens contaminates air, water, soil, and crops. Farm animal waste was the identified cause of the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak, according to an investigation by the FDA.

The government must acknowledge that the original source of this salmonella outbreak is not peanuts - it's our out-of-control factory farming system.

Americans now eat more than one million animals per hour, and as demand for cheap meat grows, thousands more factory farms, feedlots, and other agribusiness operations are popping up across the country. A single factory farm often houses hundreds of thousands of animals and produces as much waste as a small city. In fact, factory farm runoff is the biggest water pollution problem in the United States. And the animal waste in this runoff contains pathogens - salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria - that can be 10 to 100 times more concentrated than in human waste.

Georgia, home of the accused peanut processing plant, ranks number one in the country in the production of chicken meat and eggs - and also in peanuts. With Georgia's poultry industry raising more than 1.3 billion birds a year in crowded, often unsanitary conditions, it's no surprise that some of the billions of peanuts grown in the state are infected with salmonella and other bacteria. Many counties in Georgia produce both poultry and peanuts, which makes it easy for deadly bacteria to travel through runoff into adjacent fields where peanuts and other crops are grown. But many other parts of the country, from Maryland to California, host huge factory farms - and face similar pollution problems.

I hope policymakers will take immediate action in protecting our food supply and investigate animal agriculture as the original source of this salmonella outbreak. But while we're waiting, consumers can help curtail factory farm pollution by simply opting for meatless meals. If more of us followed a plant-based diet, the number of animals on farms would decrease. This health change would help reduce everyone's risk of foodborne illness. It wouldn't hurt our cholesterol levels either.


Neal Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Readers may contact him at 5100 Wisconsin Ave., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20016; Web site: www.pcrm.org .


(c) 2009, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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Jan 29, 2009
Factory farming is an immoral abomination. But most people don't give a second thought to where there food comes from or whats been done to sentient animals in their name to produce it. Our attitude to our diets has to change to take in the whole economic chain from the land to our stomachs. Not just the last transaction in which we buy the food.

Jan 29, 2009
Sentient huh? Riiiight. Cause they've like, built spacecraft and stuff, right?

A few points:

1) Talking =! sentience. Gophers can talk to each other (their language consists of ~100 words, most of which are adjectives that describe incoming predators). But they aren't sentient. I've spent enough time watching them to know that they are dumb as fenceposts. Cute? Yes. Smart? No.

2) Ability to feel pain =! sentience. Brainless worms can feel pain, but they aren't sentient. Know how I know that? Cause they have no brains!

3) Personality =! sentience. Most things have personalities, regardless of how stupid or smart they are. This is because personality is largely the result of genetically determined instinct, not of intellect (some of it is environmentally determined, of course).

The vast majority of animals are not sentient. There are a few that I believe are, such as certain species of elephant, certain species of whale and dolphin, and a couple species of bird (ravens come to mind). Maybe (MAYBE) a few of the great apes, but they are a marginal case.

But nothing else. Dogs aren't sentient. Cats are not sentient. Cows are not sentient. Chickens aren't just non-sentient, they're practically mindless sea-sponges. Sheep are not sentient. Pigs? Pigs are pretty smart, believe it or not. A lot smarter than dogs or cats are. I'm actually borderline on whether eating pigs should be allowed.

But excepting those few caveats, I feel little sympathy for bacteria in petrify dishes, rocks being smashed in quarries, or chickens being held in tiny cages. Why? BECAUSE THEY'RE BRAINLESS. I only feel sympathy for things with self-aware minds. Everything else is just a resource to be exploited or conserved. (That said, I'd like to see the feedlots and pens cleaned up, just for the sake of sanitation and clean water supplies.)

Jan 30, 2009
"As a physician"? Make me laugh. When a doctor tells me they are right because they have a "really important" degree, I know there's a good chance they have no idea what they're talking about. "PhD sickness": The belief that expertise in one field easily transfers to another. In fact, the opposite is more likely, years of focus on one discipline are liable to make someone unusually ignorant about others.

Jan 30, 2009
I'll take a nice rare steak and a salmonella vaccine. In the absence of a salmonella vaccine, I'll take my chances. To me, it's not the quantity of life that's important; it's the quality.

Jan 30, 2009
How did an fringe-opinion "Op-Ed" piece like this get into a scientific forum like PhysOrg?
Just because someone is a physician doesn't mean they can hijack this site for their own personal agenda. I can see how raising the point (that the tainting was not inherent to the product itself) is of scientific importance. However, the so-called "conclusions" are nothing more than thinly-disguised personal preferences...much along the same lines of the "Intelligent Design" arguments.
Who "vets" these articles, anyway?

Jan 30, 2009
I used to work at Sonic's(a fast food 50's style drive in) and work as a cook. I didn't calculated the exact amount but I imagined in my mind that with the amount of pre-frozen patties of beef per day then imagine how many cows just has to be slaughtered for a year to make that many patties. That's just one store in one county in a single state. Now imagine other chain's stores then imagine how many stores in that state than imagine over the country than considering super markets and little mom and pop general type stores That's a really staggering amount of beef. And I like burgers. Then on top of all that meat consider chicken, turkey, fish, etc. in just our country. No wonder we're so damn fat,including me. And the average american usually eats a meat with every meal three times a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, including the holidays. And i'm not a hippie but that is a lot of meat, and with the economy the way it is I've been trying my best to eat more vegetables, more rice, more filling foods and it's hard, and I'm a card carrying carnivore.

Jan 30, 2009
Wow. theEXxman is a good man. Not many out there are bold enough to examine their own behaviors and question them. Most people just try to justify whatever they are comfortable with. That's very admirable.

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