This is a rather retro story that has real world implications in modern day America (and the western world). For those of you who were old enough in the early 90’s you recall the E. Coli outbreak at Jack in the Box (henceforth called Jack) and might be saying in confusion “I thought it was beef that killed those 4 kids, not corn.” You would be technically correct, which is generally the best kind of correct.
However, being technically correct doesn’t matter much when dealing with bacteria or trying to reduce ones chances of death. Unfortunately nature doesn’t care about technicalities, it’s more about doing what it does and we largely follow along trying not to get stepped on or eaten by rabbit squirrels.
E. Coli is not inherently a bad thing, there are types of E. Coli living in the lower intestine of many endotherms that’s pretty awesome. It keeps us from getting much worse things in there, it provides us some important vitamins, and occasionally it writes us letters. It’s a relatively simple bacteria that most warm blooded creatures probably would thank once or twice in their life if they knew enough about it.
However, as with many things, there is a dark side to E. Coli. There are strains of this organism that will destroy the ever loving heck out of your Kidneys and red blood cells. These are two things most people cherish, this isn’t exactly common in adults (but still consult your doctor) and generally only really kill kids or old people.
So again, you might be asking, just how in the hell did corn kill people at Jack in the Box? That’s a valid question, so far it just sounds like beef was contaminated with this bad E. Coli, folks ate that beef, and some kids died. Fairly straight forward.
But what you might not realize is that this strain is rather unique and came about, quite interestingly, by a single process. Feeding corn to cattle.
It turns out that naturally a cows stomach is PH Neutral, while a human stomach is acidic (I believe that means PH Negative). Feeding a cow copious amounts of corn will actually change the PH Balance of its stomach and leave it with a wonderfully familiar tummy, one that actually is very upsetting for the cow (and would probably kill them if they lived longer than 16 months in the US these days).
So what happened before we fed corn to cows? Well factories would cut up the cows, poop would contaminate your meat, you’d eat that meat and the E. Coli would enter your stomach. Since it was adapted to survive in the PH. Neutral world of the cows belly it would be utterly slaughtered within your stomach. You might get some level of sickness but not something to write home about and I imagine your biggest issue would be gas.
Now, however, with corn fed cows you have a bacteria that hits your stomach and scoffs. It laughs with such a fury that one might find it curiously cocky, though I would be too if 10 microbes of me could be fatal.
So that, my curious web goer, is how corn killed 4 kids in the early 90’s and how it continues to sicken and kill people across the US. It turns out that taking an animal you’ve been well adapted at eating, and dramatically changing its diet, might not be the best idea.
Who would have thought?
If you were curious, or paranoid, grabbing grass fed beef from your local farm (or from a farmer’s market) will dramatically improve the nutritional quality of the meat you eat (both subjectively in terms of the treatment of the animal and objectively in terms of actual nutrition) and will reduce the chance of, at the very least, you getting a nice case of E. Coli.
However, I’m not about to petition companies to stop corn feeding cows. It’s not my place to stop them, it’s up to consumers to decide if they want to endanger themselves and create an incredibly destructive environment for some slightly cheaper meat. So this is more of an interesting tale than it necessarily is a cautionary one.
Edit: Holy crap. I linked this on reddit for some lulz since I imagined some folks there would like to tear it apart (as I’m sure there are problems and reddit is wonderful for fact checking) but I wasn’t expecting to immediately see folks viewing. Very honored for sure.