The lack of sanitation in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is something I’ve written about in the past. The deplorable conditions under which the animals exist require the use of antibiotics to reduce the spread of infection. The meat and waste products from these animals are riddled with antibiotics, a practice that is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance.
One of the biggest Escherichia coli (E. coli) outbreaks in 12 years ended in June 2018 after infected lettuce had affected 210 people in 36 states. It was responsible for the hospitalization of 96 and the deaths of five. The FDA believes the source of the bacteria in the romaine lettuce was from runoff from a local CAFO farm.
The E. coli-tainted water contaminated a nearby canal and was then used for irrigation on the lettuce fields. There are many harmless strains of E. coli, or those that are at least well-tolerated. The bacteria normally live in the intestines and play an important role in digestion. However, some strains trigger diarrhea, and others have become antibiotic-resistant superbugs.1
Failure to Wash Your Hands Worse Than Raw Meat
Some researchers call E. coli the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of bacteria since there is such a wide spectrum of strains ranging from harmless to fatal. Researchers from the U.K. write some strains are responsible for food poisoning; others for urinary tract infections; and some for the development of bacteremia, or bloodstream infections.2
One team sought to identify reservoirs of extended-spectrum beta-lactamase producing E. coli (ESBL–E. coli), which is responsible for more than 5,000 bacteremia cases each year in the U.K.3 The team looked at samples from August 1, 2013, to December 15, 2014, collected from human feces, sewage, retail food and farm slurry in Northwest England, Scotland and Wales.
The data were focused on ESBL–E. coli, which they found in 11% of human feces samples taken from a group of 20,243 individuals. In London, 17% of people tested were positive for E. coli. The bacteria were also found in sewage, as well as in and 65% of retail chicken meat samples. Interestingly, the bacteria were rarely found in other types of meat and not found in any plant-based foods.
The researchers chose to focus on ESBL–E. coli since it has become considerably antibiotic-resistant in the past 20 years. Using sequenced genomes from the sources sampled, the data revealed the strain of ESBL–E. coli collected from human blood, feces and sewer samples were similar.
However, the strains collected from chicken, cattle and animal waste were different from those strains responsible for infecting humans. The lead researcher, David Livermore, Ph.D., commented on the results:4
“E. coli bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most varieties are harmless or cause brief diarrhoea. But E. coli is also the most common cause of blood poisoning, with over 40,000 cases each year in England alone. And around 10 percent of these cases are caused by highly resistant strains with ESBLs.
Infections caused by ESBL-E. coli bacteria are difficult to treat. And they are becoming more common in both the community and hospitals. Mortality rates among people infected with these superbug strains are double those of people infected with strains that’re susceptible to treatment.”
Researchers Call for Prudent Use of Antibiotics
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 25,606 cases of infection, 5,893 hospitalizations and 120 deaths from foodborne illness in 2018.5 Of these, 2,925 were triggered by a strain of E. coli.
The researchers call for “prudent” use of antibiotics as they are a finite resource and essential to protect both animal and human health.6 However, the over-prescribing of antibiotics in livestock, used to reduce infection and promote growth, is a major contributor to the rising problem with antibiotic resistance.
Some antibiotics are also being used as pesticides in agriculture. This crossover usage may be another contributing factor to the rise in antibiotic-resistant pathogens, conservatively estimated to cause at least 2 million infections each year leading to 23,000 deaths annually.
When you are exposed to antibiotics, it’s not only from those you are prescribed, but also from food. One of the risks of giving animals antibiotics is it alters their gut microbiome, promoting unnatural bacterial growth in their intestines. These may become antibiotic-resistant as well.
The World Health Organization has called on farmers and the food industry to eliminate the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture countered this call to action saying the guidelines were not in alignment with U.S. policy and not supported by sound science.
However, this assertion flies in the face of mounting scientific evidence showing nontherapeutic use of antibiotics accounts for an estimated 93% use in American livestock. Implementing healthy changes to livestock production is possible on a large scale as has been demonstrated in other countries.
Hand Washing is Your First Line of Defense Against Infection
Results of the study demonstrate there is little crossover of the ESBL–E. coli bacteria between humans and animals. Livermore points out this means the bacteria are being primarily spread from one person to another. Although there are some varieties of ESBL that do not cause disease, those that are dangerous are proliferating. He goes on to say:7
“Rather — and unpalatably — the likeliest route of transmission for ESBL-E.coli is directly from human to human, with fecal particles from one person reaching the mouth of another. Here — in the case of ESBL-E.coli — it’s much more important to wash your hands after going to the toilet.”
Washing your hands is one of the primary strategies available to help prevent the spread of illness causing bacteria and viruses. Yet, several studies have found those using public restrooms are leaving without washing their hands.
As reported in a study from Michigan State University, 95% did not wash their hands long enough to kill germs. Leaders of a study in Britain found 84% were not washing their hands long enough to reduce the spread of infection. Using proper hand-washing techniques removes microbes and viruses you may spread when you touch your mouth, eyes and nose.
Infections that trigger a cold or diarrhea may spread when an infected person touches an inanimate object, such as a shopping cart or table, transferring the germs. You then pick it up when you touch the object. In one study by the U.S. military, researchers found after two years of using proper hand-washing techniques, 45% of the participants had fewer cases of respiratory illness.
When and How to Wash Your Hands
When in doubt, wash your hands. It’s important to clean your hands before or after different types of activities. This list may help you determine if it’s time to head to the sink for this reason.
When your hands are visibly soiled
After coming in from outside
Often during cold and flu season
Before sitting down to eat
After coughing or sneezing
Visiting or caring for sick people
After playing with children or handling children’s toys
After handling garbage, using the phone or shaking hands
After touching your pet, pet food, pet treats or animal waste
After going to the bathroom or changing a diaper
Before and after handling food, being especially careful with raw eggs, meat, seafood and poultry
After coming home from the grocery store, school, the mall or church where you may have touched contaminated objects
Using the correct technique to wash your hands will help reduce the number of harmful bacteria you may inadvertently transfer to others. To be truly effective for disease control, consider the following guidelines:
• Use warm, running water and a mild soap. You do NOT need antibacterial soap, and this has been scientifically verified. Even those from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration state,8 “There is currently no evidence that [antibacterial soaps] are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.
Further, some data suggest long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products — for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps) — could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.”
• Start with wet hands, add soap and work up a good lather, all the way up to your wrists, scrubbing for at least 15 or 20 seconds (most people only wash for about six seconds). A good way to time this is to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
• Make sure you cover all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and around and below your fingernails. Rinse thoroughly under running water.
• Thoroughly dry your hands, ideally using a paper towel. In public places, also use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs the handles may harbor.
Too Much Hand Washing May Increase Your Risk of Infection
More of a good thing is not always a better thing. In fact, washing your hands too frequently may increase your risk of getting sick. As you wash your hands, it removes protective oils that increase the risk of skin cracks that allow bacteria under your skin and into your body. Once you remove more oils than your skin can produce, it can become challenging to heal, especially in dry winter air.
You may face the same challenge if you shower more than once a day, especially in the winter. It’s also important to remember not all bacteria living on your skin are harmful. In other words, living under “clean” conditions does not mean living bacteria-free. Using DNA sequencing, scientists have found a vast diversity of bacteria growing in different areas of the human body.
For instance, the bacteria growing on your elbows is different from the bacteria growing on your knees. While it is important to wash your hands after leaving the bathroom or handling raw meat, simple exposure is not the sole determinant of whether or not you get sick.
Another factor is the state of your immune system, which dictates your bodily response. There are many factors that influence your immune system over which you have control. Getting quality sleep, supporting your gut microbiome, enjoying sensible sun exposure, limiting sugar consumption and paying attention to nutrition are all strategies that have a significant impact on your immune system.