My name is Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli. I routinely cause chaos around the globe. My credentials are impressive: every year in the U.S. alone I cause an estimated 96,000 illnesses, 3,200 hospitalizations, and 31 deaths, adding up to $405 million in health care costs. Whenever I enter the human body, my hapless victim experiences abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and uncontrollable vomiting. Whenever my name is mentioned in the news, restaurants suddenly empty, grocery stores quickly turn into investigative scenes, mothers grow anxious over advice from the media, and children cry over the burgers they are not allowed to have. Given my outstanding impact, I am recognized as one of the world’s “Big Five” food-borne pathogens.
Though a household name, I was not born into stardom. I actually have a rather humble beginning, originating from a little-known bacteria family that has resided quietly in the intestines of animals for centuries. Contrary to popular belief, most of my family are harmless. The few of us who can cause illness always managed to stay within our own territories – until a few decades ago, when humans started factory farming. Factory farming offered boundless opportunities for my family, driving us into the vast human food chain and optimizing our ability to cause lethal harm to humans. How has factory farming brought worldwide fame to an unknown organism like me? Here is my story.
My mother died when I was young. She grew up in the gentle gut of a cow when cows subsisted on grass. When factory-farming came along, the demand for fattier, more marbled beef motivated farmers to switch from grass to grain-based feed. As a result, the cow’s digestive system became more acidic. My mother simply could not survive the change. From that moment on, I knew that my life depended on my ability to resist acid. My survival compelled me to adapt. So I grew into a tough pathogen that could thrive in an environment as acidic as the human stomach.
The grain-based diet also fundamentally altered the cow’s immune system. Cows were born to live on grass. When forced to eat a large quantity of grain, the cow’s body became weaker, resulting in an impaired ability to guard against foreign pathogens. Though bad for my bovine host, this was wonderful news for me: I gained the ability to move from cow to cow and one farm to another. Now it was time for me to venture out into the vast world!
My first sight of the world outside the cow’s body was surprisingly unpleasant: countless cows crammed in a lightless shed. The air was stifling, permeated by the stench of rotten corn, urine, and manure. What surprised me most was that there were so many of us – members of the E. coli family, along with our friends from the Salmonella family – jumping from cows to grain, from grain to manure, manure to air, air to water, and water to the ground. Initially, I feared humans would do something to decimate us. But no one seemed to notice or care.
Emboldened, I decided it was time to emerge from the cow shed. I bid good-bye to my brother, who was too lazy to leave the comfort of the cow’s gut, thinking that this was probably the last time we would see each other. Fate would later reveal that we were destined to reunite in a very different setting thousands of miles away.
The perfect opportunity to escape came quickly. While I was resting in manure watching my relatives replicate, a farm worker started to clean the ground, using a water hose to flush out the manure. Hooray! I sailed out of the shed, across the feedlot, and into a running irrigation ditch. A gorgeous scene emerged: the rays of the sun caressed the smiling faces of green leaves in a field. The air was so fresh that some of my buddies could not help but leap into it, starting their journey to explore Earth’s boundless atmosphere. I wondered why the cows were not allowed to graze freely. The humans had imprisoned them in that crowded, dirty place.
My buddies in the irrigation stream were just as excited. When a turn to the tomato fields arose, some dove into the rich soil that promised infinite opportunities for proliferating. When a divergent route to a chicken farm appeared, others eagerly jumped into the endless feeding line, ripe with possibilities for replicating. When a deviation to the reservoir popped up, some dashed into the water source that offered hope for flourishing in lakes, parks, and human drinking water systems.
Eventually I found myself in a field, resting on a spinach leaf. The sun warmed me, and I dozed. Suddenly, I was awakened by a sharp pain. A familiar pungent smell filled the air, reminding me of the cow’s gut. I used to feel exactly the same pain when humans gave the cows antibiotics. The antibiotics were meant to kill us, but thankfully, since I survived, I developed immunity, just as I developed resistance to acid. My new friends on the spinach were not so lucky. Due to devastation by the antibiotics, a few of the gentle nutrients died en route from the roots to the leaves. Others were forced to share space with the antibiotics, which became embedded in the spinach.
My next stop was a food processing center where lots of vegetables, fruits, and raw meat were stuffed together. While swimming with the spinach in a wash tank, I was swept to the wall. Before I could make my way back, the water was drained and the spinach was gone. I was petrified. If someone came to disinfect the tank, I could easily be killed. Even if no one came, I could not survive long without moisture.
Luckily, my scare lasted just two minutes. The tank was quickly refilled with water and sprouts. I swam happily back in. To celebrate, I hopped from one sprout to another, trying to leave as many footprints as possible. Eventually I found myself on the bottom of a container at a huge distribution center. What if someone came to sanitize the container? Looking around, my eyes met the fearful eyes of others as we began to pray together.
Soon, our prayers were answered. Lettuce heads were dropped in, and we leaped onto their green leaves for shelter. Clearly, no one bothered to clean the containers before they refilled them. Overjoyed, we frolicked all over the distribution center.
My enthusiasm continued when we were loaded onto a truck crowded with containers. Days passed. Nevertheless, it offered the perfect place for me to hone my replicating skills. By the time we arrived at the destination, my descendants had settled comfortably in different containers. Suddenly, I was airlifted by a chilly spray. I was in a supermarket. The mist was sprayed to make the lettuce leaves shine so that they looked fresher. Riding on a droplet, I landed on the hand of a store worker who was lining up lettuce heads. My intuition told me that the human hand was a danger zone – I could be killed instantly when the hand was washed. I decided to flee.
Before I made my move, though, a poster caught my attention. There, cows grazed in lush pastures. What a contrast to the dark, dirty, crowded factory farm I had known! Suddenly, it dawned on me that farming in open, green land was what humans wanted. So why did they keep their cows in dismal, unsanitary factory farms?
When the worker stopped at the meat area, I landed on a beef steak. Suddenly, I saw a familiar face – my brother! I thought we would never see each other again, but here we were. I learned that he rarely experienced human threat during his journey from the factory farm to this supermarket. Thanks to factory farming and the many human indiscretions, we had not only survived but thrived. Now we were ready to enter human bodies and make another round of news.
Humans always blame me for causing their problems, since I am an easy scapegoat. But blaming or killing me will not solve their problems. The truth is that today’s factory farms aim to produce the largest amount of food at the least cost during the shortest period of time – all to maximize profits. This translates to feeding livestock with unnatural, growth-promoting, and chemical-laden diets; housing livestock on overcrowded farms; and ignoring unsanitary conditions and unhygienic food-handling procedures. As long as these practices continue, even if I were not in existence, humans will run the risk of being harmed by other pathogens that will emerge, perhaps ones much more devastating than a naturally humble and unpretentious E. coli bacterium ever was.
Humans do not have to accept this. You can strike a balance between industrial agriculture and natural farming, between mass production and clean processing, and between commercial profits and safe food. It requires you to ask some serious questions: Are there ways to enhance the immune system of the livestock? How can we improve conditions on factory farms? What can we do to prevent the spread of pathogens? Are there ways to decrease contamination at food processing and distribution facilities? Are there ways to enforce food safety regulations? Are you ready to make a change? If you consider these questions in a responsible way and act accordingly, I’m sure you can make a difference.
Coincidentally, “eco,” the first letters of my name, are also the first three letters of two vital and interdependent concepts – ecology and economy. Ecology addresses the sustainable interactions among the diverse and dynamic species. When factory farming interrupts the harmony and hinders the sustainability of the ecosystem, resources are damaged, human health is harmed, and as a result, the economy suffers. I leave it to you to ponder the importance of healthy farming practices. I sincerely hope that my memoir will help you understand the consequences of profit-driven factory farming and motivate you to make changes. In the meantime, stay calm in the next wave of unsettling E. coli news; I am not, by nature, out to get you.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the April 2016 Teen Ink Environment Contest.