The latest E coli outbreak has already claimed the lives of 22 people and infected more than 2,000 people across the world.
Bean sprouts from a German organic farm were blamed for spreading the previously unknown strain—though previously we were assured that Spanish cucumbers were the source.
But whatever is directly responsible, the spread of disease is the inevitable, and predictable, consequence of heavily industrialised food production run for profit.
As early as 1995 a study found 13 percent of pre-bagged salads contained E coli. Three years ago, the US Centre of Disease Control found that 300,000 people are hospitalised and 5,000 die from food-borne diseases every year in the US.
Food is big business. At every stage, from primary agriculture to food manufacturing and retailing, a handful of gigantic players dominate.
Four multinationals control the raw materials of our global food system. One, Cargill, is the biggest private company in the world with sales of £66 billion in 2010, while the retail food market is run by powerful supermarkets.
Industrial production techniques are used at every stage in the food chain. This includes the huge cattle feedlots, the salmon farms where up to 1.5 million fish are reared in massive cages, the industrial packing complexes and supermarket distribution centres. The relentless drive to cut costs to boost profits means hygiene is constantly sacrificed.
The salad industry is no exception. Some 40 square miles of the Netherlands is under glass growing crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. In Spain, there is a vast industrial landscape of plastic hothouses which covers over 150 square miles of the coastal plain.
E coli bugs are spread from human or animal faeces, as well as through poorly cooked contaminated meat. They can be spread from contaminated water, manure that has not been properly composted and from poor hygiene practices.
The intensive harvesting of lettuces creates the conditions for pests and funguses to flourish. Hothouses packed in next to each other enable pests to spread. To deal with these problems pesticide is used, much of which is extremely toxic.
Agrochemicals are also big business—just six companies control 75 percent of the market. The use of pesticides mirrors the widespread use of antibiotics across the agricultural industry. One consequence of this has been the rise of new strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics, including the latest E coli strain.
Supermarkets pressure suppliers to produce as cheaply as possible, while still meeting the supermarkets’ own fluctuating demand. One of the only costs producers can control is labour. They need a workforce that can be turned on and off as required and paid the bare minimum. That has meant relying heavily on migrant labour, particularly in Spain where there are up to 90,000 migrant workers.
The thousands of workers who tend, pick and wash the crops live in shacks made of old plastic boxes and plastic sheeting without sanitation or access to drinking water.
Salad is washed in huge water tanks. Again, the pressure to speed up production and cut costs means the water is often only completely changed once a day. This allows mud to build up. Chlorine is then added to control bacteria.
Mass production techniques combined with cost cutting at every stage and the driving down of conditions increase the likelihood of food harbouring bugs like E coli. The food industry’s solution is to use radiation to kill bacteria.
In the US spinach and lettuce sellers zap their produce with high frequency radiation—about 15 million times that of a single chest X-ray.
Some say these problems are the result of people wanting cheaper food. This is wrong. The problem is that food is a commodity, traded to make a profit, while speculation pushes prices up. We face contaminated and expensive food.
Rather than blame those who eat the food or work in horrendous conditions, we have to tackle those responsible—the companies and the speculators.