By Emma Pollin
Taco Bell probably should have seen God’s wrath coming when it foisted Fourth Meal (“The Meal Between Dinner and Breakfast!”) on an obese nation. Vengeance came in the form of a deadly bacteria called E. coli 0157:H7. And it came, alas, to New Jersey. The South Plainfield Taco Bell was the epicenter of last month’s outbreak of E. coli poisoning. The restaurant was forced to close temporarily, as were many other franchises across the Northeast.
And guess who had a phenomenal fourth quarter? McDonald’s. Apparently "Inside the Bun" sounds like a nice, safe place to be these days.
Drive The Five
Thirty-three of the 71 people poisoned in this outbreak were New Jerseyans, but the E. coli bug that sickened them came from my home state of California. Picture if you will The Five. The Five is the West Coast edition of I-95. Not one of those scenic coastline freeways to meander down when you visit, The Five is the throbbing thoroughfare of convenience. For I-95’s creepy industrial smokestacks and creepier giant truck stops, substitute creepy industrial farms and creepier cattle feedlots, punctuated at handy intervals by drive-thrus.
I have sacrificed many an hour of my youth and many a tank of gas to the wide lanes of The Five. And when I must spend the better part of a day zooming toward LA at 80 miles an hour, my beacon on the hill isn’t the Golden Arches. It’s the humble sign that tells me the next stop will be my opportunity to Make A Run For The Border. (Does that old ad copy seem offensive to anyone else?)
Taco Bell has always been my favorite fast food joint, and I think it has earned that distinction. Consider the Mexican Pizza. Open its perfect cardboard container and discover a tostada shell palette painted with broad strokes of melted jack cheese, green scallions and red tomatoes -- an homage perhaps to the Mexican flag. Bite through two layers of crisp shell and your taste buds will be awash in inimitable Taco Bell frijoles flavor, mingling with warm cheese, spunky scallions and intricately-spiced enchilada sauce.
Taco Bell is fine eating. Unlike burgers -- or nowadays, salads -- Mexican fare has always seemed to me an appropriate application of the fast food ethic. After all, many a great taqueria is built on the concept of a variety of convenience foods para llevar, prepared from an array of standardized ingredients.
But the latest E. coli outbreak is a harsh reminder that the problems of our food system -- from the industrialized farms to the perfectly standardized chalupa -- affect all purveyors of fast food, regardless of inside/outside bun status.
What Is That Reek?
At certain spots along the Five -- thankfully some distance from Taco Bell -- the atmosphere of your car will be overwhelmed by a sickening odor. You will turn a suspicious eye on your travelling companion, expecting a confession. When the confession is not forthcoming, you will roll down the window in a combined gesture of mercy and passive aggression. Then you will realize your error, quickly roll the window back up, and gaze through it at a great sea of cows. The sight of thousands of cattle standing crammed together in their own feces, and the stench that so amply preceeded it, will disgust you. But you will likely tell yourself that, while it may seem unpleasant, this is simply and unavoidably how hamburgers are made.
In fact, that initial gag reflex should be trusted. Cows are built to graze on grass. When they do, they are usually healthy. But the feedlot cattle that dominate the American beef and milk markets do not graze on grass. They are held in crowded conditions and fed a small portion of the great excess of corn that our bizarrely subsidized agriculture system produces. Corn and crowding are not good for cows. They are often unhealthy and require more meds than the Meet the Press viewership.
I admit, I’m kind of a softie. I get upset about the cows. I worry for the cows. I am in fact such a bleeding heart that I buy those $4 cartons of milk that say Organic Grass-Fed rbST-free. (Unless my bank account is about to bounce, in which case it’s the cheapie “I’ll-Take-Cattle-Abuse-With-That” carton.)
You may not be quite so sentimental. You may say, leave me my burger and go away, hippie. But you’d be wise to do unto your livestock as you would have them do unto you. Because they could give you bloody diarrhea.
That’s right. Experts believe E. coli 0157:H7 evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle. In fact, this particularly dangerous strain of E. coli has only been around the last 25 years or so, and all those highly medicated cows probably have a lot to do with its recent surge. While cows eating corn are very susceptible to E. coli 0157:H7, a recent study found that simply letting the cows eat grass prevented the bacteria. Turns out those old-fangled pastures serve a purpose beyond being bucolic scenery. Healthy cows eat grass. Unhealthy cows can make you sick.
So the vast California feedlot is where E. coli poisoning usually begins. In the past, most outbreaks were caused by meat. Cows standing and lying in their own shit would become carcasses smeared with feces would become contaminated beef. Now outbreaks from meat are far less common, but not necessarily because the cows are no longer standing in feces or the carcasses are cleaned. No, often the meat is simply “irradiated.” Rather than removing the contaminants from the equation -- and I truly hate to have to be the one to break this to you -- the beef industry just cooks the cow manure well enough that it won’t make you sick.
Perhaps thanks to irradiation, then, the people who ate at the South Plainfield Taco Bell were not sickened by E. coli contaminated beef. Like the bagged spinach outbreak last October, this outbreak was almost certainly caused by produce. Scallions were the original suspect, but the CDC and the FDA now believe the contamination source was prepackaged, shredded iceberg lettuce. Lettuce from California.
If Industrial Agriculture Did It, Here's How It Happened
Keep driving. When you hit the Central Valley, slow down to maybe 75. Those straight lines traced across the landscape are in fact precise rows of vegetables growing alongside the Taco Bells and the feedlots of The Five. These are the industrial farms that grow most of the nation’s produce, including about 75 percent of its iceberg lettuce. Here -- in all likelihood -- lies the lettuce field that sickened 33 New Jerseyans last month.
How does E. coli, which breeds in cattle guts, get into a lettuce field?
Again I hate to make you gag, but manure from those sad-sack cows doesn’t stay on the feedlot. Tens of thousands of cows produce a lot of shit. And it travels. Sometimes it simply runs off the feedlot into nearby farm fields. It may also seep into the groundwater that is then used to irrigate the vegetables. Manure is also intentionally spread on crops as fertilizer -- a sustainable, healthy, organic farming practice when the cows aren’t in ill health and the manure isn’t crawling with E. coli. If the lettuce field in question was far enough from the feedlot, wild animals like deer or wild pigs may even have had to hoof the manure all the way from the feedlot.
Now we have E. coli-contaminated manure in a field of lettuce. A deadly waste product of industrial farming right next to your taco fixins. And once a tiny portion of lettuce or spinach or any other vegetable is contaminated in the field, it’s easy for E. coli to spread. Pre-washed, bagged greens -- like those implicated in both last year’s spinach outbreak and the Taco Bell outbreak -- are especially vulnerable because they are washed in huge centralized facilities where bacteria can easily spread from leaf to leaf, then held in sealed plastic bags that provide cozy conditions for E. coli. The more convenient and standardized the produce, the more E. coli-friendly it apparently becomes. A recent scientific report found that pre-shredded, bagged iceberg lettuce is particularly vulnerable because its many cut surfaces are open to bacteria.
Those sealed bags are shipped across the country, emptied into a bin at the taco-makin' station, stuffed (or possibly “stuft”) into a burrito and there the journey ends. Unlucky consumers of the tainted food become extremely sick, afflicted with bloody diarrhea and severe cramps. Luckily no one died in the Taco Bell outbreak, but the O157:H7 strain can cause kidney failure and death.
I long for a Mexican Pizza, even -- no, especially -- after writing this column. Taco Bell President Greg Creed (incidentally the least Mexican person ever) came on TV to reassure me. “Taco Bell food is absolutely safe to eat,” he said. He further explained in a written statement that the company had switched produce suppliers and thoroughly sanitized the affected restaurants.
But having braved the preceeding E. coli journey, you’ll understand why that didn’t make me feel better. I still haven’t had a Mexican Pizza. Or a 7-Layer Burrito. Or even a produce-free Bean and Cheese.
An editorial in the Financial Times last month mocked my reluctance. “E-coli 0157 poisoning,” the author wrote, “is one of those things to which human beings find it very hard to respond dispassionately ... Although 70 people have fallen ill in the latest outbreak, this is 0.000002 per cent of the 35m people who eat at one of 5,800 Taco Bell outlets in the US each week.”
Yes, you’re right, John Gapper, you exquisitely logical Englishman. And turning to McDonald’s for salvation makes us dumb Americans indeed.
It may not be possible to evade E. coli, but maybe we’re right to freak out a little. There have been a surprising number of E. coli O157 outbreaks lately. Between bagged spinach, Taco Bell and the other recent outbreak at Taco John’s in the Midwest, over 300 people were poisoned in the last four months. Three died.
I don’t quite believe Greg Creed when he says, “We put our customers health and safety above all else.” His company and all the others that comprise Big Food -- whether they grow food, package it, ship it or transform it into perfect packets of cheap, unhealthy goodness -- will always put one thing first: profit.
But food is not a widget, and producing it as cheaply as possible can be expensive indeed. I may just act irrationally and pack a lunch next time I have to hit The Five.
Emma Pollin is a regular columnist for City Belt. Stewpot is her column on politics, popular culture, media and whatever else can be crammed into the pot.