Thirty-one tons of raw beef have been recalled due to a possible E. coli risk, the USDA announced last week. The 62,112 pounds of meat were packaged on April 19 and failed random sample testing by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). How do zoonotic diseases spread from animals to humans?
According to the USDA, E. coli is “a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea, and abdominal cramps two to eight days after exposure [to] the organism.” The announcement also says that although most people recover from E. coli exposure within a week, children under age 5 and older adults can suffer from a type of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. Viral, bacterial, parasitic, and fungal diseases that spread from animals to humans are called zoonotic diseases. Learn more about them here.
The phrase “zoonotic diseases” isn’t as well-known as the names of some of its most common culprits. “Research from the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, has estimated that six out of every 10 infectious diseases in our population today are spread from animals,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Some of the most common zoonotic diseases that come to mind are Lyme disease, West Nile virus, malaria, Salmonella, and E. coli. Lyme disease is transmitted via ticks, whereas West Nile virus and malaria are transmitted via mosquitoes. Salmonella and E. coli, on the other hand, are foodborne illnesses.”
According to Dr. Crittenden, Salmonella is a bacterial infection named after its commonly accepted discoverer, veterinary surgeon Daniel Elmer Salmon. However, Salmon’s research assistant, Theobald Smith, actually discovered it. The bacteria Salmonella commonly live in animal and human intestines; they’re expelled in fecal matter. Since Salmonella is a foodborne illness that get out into the open via bowel movements, this means that most of the time, humans get infected from contaminated food and water. “Since its original classification in 1900, about 2,000 additional types of Salmonella have been identified,” she said.
E. coli and the Changing Disease-scape
“E. coli, which is the abbreviated form of the genus escherichia, is another common foodborne illness that comes from our interactions with animals,” Dr. Crittenden said. “These bacteria are also found in the intestines of humans and animals, as well as in the environment.”
The latest raw beef recall isn’t modern society’s first brush with the bacteria. As a foodborne illness, E. coli has reared its ugly head many times in the 21st century. In its statement regarding the recalled beef, the FSIS echoed a familiar recommendation of modern science and medicine: “FSIS advises all consumers to safely prepare their raw meat products, including fresh and frozen, and only consume product that has been cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.” This warning aims to stave off the spread of harmful bacteria, most of which die when heated to that temperature.
Quality control checks for meat and poultry are essential safeguards for the food processing industry in the United States. The recent recall of beef after its failed quality control spot check is an example of the ongoing role of zoonotic diseases in our lives, which in many ways began 10,000 years ago. “The first shift in the landscape of disease, or disease-scape, was tethered to the domestication of plants and animals,” Dr. Crittenden said. She explained that as we became an agricultural society that eschewed nomadic ways, people lived closer to one another than ever, which increased person-to-person disease transmission. “And they were also now living with their domesticated animals, which greatly increased the transmission of zoonotic diseases,” she said.
In the meantime, defending ourselves from ticks and mosquitoes save us from Lyme disease, West Nile virus, and malaria. Similarly, proper handling of animal products is vital for limiting our exposure to dangerous foodborne illnesses.
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.