Wednesday, October 10, 2007

An Argument for Eating You Know What

Eat Crap Why Americans should ingest more excrement.
By Kent Sepkowitz Posted Tuesday,

One year ago, the now-famous E. coli outbreak arising from contaminated spinach rattled the natural-food industry and gave carnivores a moment of schadenfreude. The story had the heartbreaking elements we have come to dread: A young child eats something mundane and dies a horrid death. Boom, gone. I have (unsuccessfully) treated one such case and rate it as perhaps the most chilling moment of my career.

Since then, the United States has seen at least four additional food-borne outbreaks: salmonella in peanut butter and in spinach, botulism in canned chili, and the current Topps Meat Co. recall of 21.7 million pounds (40,000 cows' worth) of E. coli-tainted ground beef. Those with an insatiable interest in E. coli O157:H7 (along with the lawyers who traffic in this corner of the human misery market) can keep up-to-date here.

With every outbreak, the same question sounds: Why can't we keep the food chain clean? The annual numbers aren't small, nor are they decreasing. By one estimate, about one-fourth of Americans get "food poisoning" of some type each year, 300,000 are hospitalized, and a few thousand die. The perps remain the same—E. coli, listeria, salmonella, and all the rest. Why is this public-health problem so difficult to solve? This is America, after all, replete with wondrously harsh chemicals that can kill anything. Why can't we scrub away the bacteria our guts don't get along with?

Maybe we are taking the wrong approach. Rather than trying to make our food and water ever cleaner, we should focus instead on making sure it's dirty enough to assure our good health.
Here's why. Our struggle to purify food and water has been ongoing for thousands of years. Ask any expert to name mankind's greatest public-health advance, and the answer will be not vaccines, or antibiotics, or disposable diapers, or refrigeration, or mosquito netting. Though wondrous, each is dwarfed by the greatest invention of them all: plumbing. Why did the Romans successfully rule the world? The Cloaca Maxima, ancient Rome's elaborate sewer system, a structure so effective that Pliny the Elder considered it the "most noteworthy" accomplishment of the empire. And why does the West still run economic circles around the developing world?

Because we don't ingest each other's excrement. At least not that often.

The triumph of Western civilization is, first and foremost, a triumph of pipes and valves and the fact that water runs downhill. Aqueducts bring fresh water in, cobblestoned underground tunnels move used water out, and, presto, our world is clean.

But here is the problem: We have become victims of our own success. Ever wonder why your dog can gobble, lick, and gnaw all he wants along the glorious buffet of a city street and (almost) never get sick? Your dog is used to eating shit. Americans, on the other hand, grow up eating almost no shit at all. Our food is hosed and boiled and rinsed and detoxified and frozen and salted and preserved. Recently, we have begun to irradiate it, too—just in case. As a result, when our bodies encounter the occasional inevitable bug, they're unhappy. Our centuries-long program of winnowing out all the muck has turned us into sissies and withered the substantial part of the immune system mediated by our intestinal tract.

Kids have it worse than adults. Even with today's near-sterility, adult intestines have learned enough tricks to ward off major trouble, albeit clumsily. In contrast, modern kids are near-bubble babies. Our mammalian disaster plan is a good one: A child receives antibodies against countless infections from his mother through the placenta and then from breast milk. With that protection, the infant can take his time to develop his own antibodies. But these days, mothers have scant immunity because they too were raised in America the Hygienic. (Also, breast-feeding may be skipped.) So, kids have zero experience with routine gut infections, and when they encounter one that has slipped past our pipes and filters, the result can be catastrophic.
The best response to E. coli and the other pathogens that cause food poisoning is to recognize, humbly, that we can get the food supply almost perfectly clean, but never completely. There's just too much crap out there: human crap, horse crap, cow crap, pig crap. In the feces of these and other animals are trillions of infectious agents (bacteria, viruses, fungi, worms, and everything else that upsets the stomach). Try as we may to contain the mess, we can never win. Pig dung fouls rivers; cow crap seeps into water tables; human shit kicks back every time heavy rains overwhelm a sewage system's filtration capacity.

Furthermore, the closer to nature we get, the likelier we are to eat more shit. That's a growing problem now, as more people seek a less processed, more flavorful diet. To make matters worse, the alliance of natural foods with big-league distribution systems has guaranteed that people across the country can all simultaneously eat the same E. coli-laden spinach or meat grown by the same farm. The two key aspects of a healthy diet—nutritious food and safe food—seem irrevocably at odds with each other. How can we have what we want and still feel safe?
Maybe we can't. Observant Jews long ago sided with safety over taste by boiling, boiling, and then boiling some more. Cholent is the Yiddish word for food that is prepared in advance of the Sabbath, when ovens cannot be lit. Cholent cooks on a hot plate for 18 hours or more, pushing the food to within an inch of its life. Without ever sampling it, you can imagine its perfect non-ness, not even a hint of taste. But oh-so-safe.

Failing the mainstreaming of McCholent, what other options do we have? We can't just put all the crap back into our diet—we would suddenly see infant mortality rates that rival those of Angola. But we will never remove it all, either. So, here's a suggestion: Rather than frantically throwing money at new ways to eradicate the pathogens that reside in shit, we should fund the boring scientists who focus on untangling the intricacies of the gut's immune system. Labs, answer this: How much shit can we safely eat and, as importantly, how much must we eat to remain healthy?

9 Comments:

Anonymous Nate Sallee said...

It is obvious that the human systems have a very complex way of keeping a person healthy. We can at times become too clean with our environment and with the food we eat. After the "shit" class discussion it really made me think about why we try so hard to purify things such as water to the point where it effects our immune system. In our society we have been essentially convinced by companies that we NEED bottled/purified. Recently it was proven that one brand of bottled water was basically just filtered water. Some missionaries are forced to take water filter systems with them to foreign countries because they will get sick if they drink their water. My first honors class was with a professor who grew a great amount of the food he ate. This man would call us out frequently for our eating habits and tell us how bad many restaurant foods are. Obviously there are some disturbing facts about the way some companies prepare their food products, but do they really harm us that bad. For example, a chicken house has hundreds of chickens in cages stacked on top of each other. From that situation its inevitable that the chickens on the bottom are going to be wearing all of the waste from the others above them. When I heard this I was disgusted, but now I'm not sure it's as bad as we think, in fact it may help us.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Meaghan Dill said...

In recent years, scientists have begun to realize that, yes, in this day and age of almost obsessive compulsive cleaning habits, our immune systems have gotten weaker and weaker. Even parenting magazines advise worried mommies and daddies to let their kids to play in dirt (and maybe even ingest it) because, in the long run, it will only help their immune system. Sure, sterilization is necessary to some degree. A surgeon can't use the same cutting instruments twice in a row, and it is quite disgusting to use a scummy bathroom, but we do need to let it rest. Back in the earlier days (we'll go with the 1800's), people's immune systems were tough because there was no such thing as hand sanitizer and Lysol. They were exposed to a healthy amount of bacteria. If you want to go farther back (and fictional), Gargantua's mother ate shit and he turned out to be one of the greatest babies ever born. After working in a daycare for over a year, it becomes easy to tell which parents are clean freaks. Their kids were more susceptible to the little bugs running rampant at school (let's face it, it's almost impossible to completely sterlize a daycare). It's becoming clear that we need to lighten up about the cleaning and focus more on things that will help us, such as recycling and making sure to exercise at least three times a week.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

When I first started to read this article, I must admit that I was appalled. I would really rather not think about ingesting shit and making it part of my daily diet. But then I began to think about what the article was saying and I began to agree with it. When I was a child, I was allowed to play outside and play with who knows what why lying around the farm. There were probably a lot of things that I touched or put into my mouth that today’s society would deem inappropriate, but as a 3 year old that dirt looked pretty tasty. In spite of all that I put into my body I hardly ever for sick. Then I began to think about my little cousins, who’s parents are crazy germaphobes. These kids aren’t allowed to do anything but play inside with the windows closed and breathe the same old stale air. Needless to say, every time you turn around they are sick and are taken to the doctor for the oh so wonderful antibiotics. Even though everything these kids touch is sanitized and sterilized they still get sick. Why is this? Well like Sepkowitz points out our immune systems are shot. We can no longer fight off diseases that the human body was once able to do, and do so easily. I think he is right, I think society needs to go back a few hundred years and stop trying to make everything pure and clean. In our attempts to be sanitized all we have done is made ourselves sick.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Eden Van Bibber said...

While I understand what the article is saying about the importance of building antibodies to boost our immunity, I seriously doubt if the average American will take this advice to heart. Today we are so separated from all forms of dirt that the thought of it potentially being beneficial seems absurd, and the thought of actually ingesting shit is enough to make your stomach churn. I think many Americans, myself included, would be willing to suffer from chronic sniffles rather than purposely dine on fecal matter. But I do understand the absurdity of obsessing over germs, they are everywhere on everything, unavoidable aspects of the real world. There is no way to avoid sickness short of living in a plastic bubble, so maybe people need to relax a little about germs, put away the antibacterial hand sanitizer, actually touch that door handle, go ahead cough directly on your hand none of that elbow nonsense. But stop short of actually eating shit, there is a fine line between Mysophobia and being just disgusting.

9:13 AM  
Anonymous my_name_is_taken said...

While mildly disgusted by this article, I have to say that to some extent I agree. I never really thought about how the things that we do to make conditions “better for us” could be doing just the opposite of what we want. I know that in today’s society, cleanliness is a huge factor in the lives of many people. I do agree that it is a good thing to wash your hands frequently, and to have good hygeine in general, but I understand how if we hadn’t made our bodies react the way they do to germs and dirt, that we might not have to worry so much about these germs and getting sick from them.
Like a previous poster says, Im sure that it would worry most of us to see how some of our food is prepared before we see it on the shelves of stores, and for me, it is probably better that I don’t know, however, it might be a good thing to eat a little dirt, or shit, now in then. It might improve our health more than we think.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Kayla Meadows said...

This article makes a profound amount of sense to me -not because I'm for the eating of shit, persay, but because its almost a bit of common sense that society has completely forgotten about.

As a country, we spend millions, perhaps billions, of dollars on new medical technology and cures for these diseases that we, ourselves, have brought about, simply be being clean. It is a complete oxymoron, really, to the teachings of childhood which demand outstanding cleanliness to avoid these germs -even games such as Oregon Trail perpetuate that lack of cleanliness in living leads to sickness and death. Technology, too, makes people less prepared, because this invention is supposed to magically become a solution to everything.

Unfortunately, I don't plan on ingesting shit any time soon...so I'm going to have to deal with the apparent consequences. But obvious things like these, that are truly right under our noses until someone throws them at us (no pun intended) really throw me for a loop.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Marissa Manns said...

The phrase Eat Shit certainly does take on a new meaning in this context. The question is if not eating ‘shit’ is hurting us rather than helping us. I have always had a good immune system and I do not get sick very often. I believe this is due to my family not being extremely germ phobic when I was a child. Similar to what Meaghan said, my parents have always told me “A little dirt never hurt anyone.” Ingesting a few germs is necessary to develop a strong immune system. I found a very interesting fact relating to food sanitation. Many people that are allergic to chocolate are not actually allergic to chocolate. Rather they are allergic to the cockroach legs and excrement found in the cocoa beans used to make it. After trying a European chocolate they often have no reaction. This is due to the fact that food quality standards are so much higher there. Today our bodies simply cannot tolerate the exposure as some one back in history could have. Enter here the community food pots and people who “shit where they ate.” Feces are natural; but I do not believe increased ingestion is the answer. Not worrying about every little germ is really the solution here.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Edna said...

My parents are the opposite of mysophobes, much like many of the previous bloggers' parents. I played outside everyday in the dirt, the "five second rule" has been long-standing among many generations in my family, and there weren’t any antibacterial soaps, lotions, or hand sanitizers in my house. Despite how approving my parents were of the normality of children and dirt, I did not (and still don't) have a good immune system. It is not because my parents never let me go outside and made me stay indoors breathing stale air…nor is it because everything I ate had to be cooked for over eighteen hours. It is simply because my mother has an autoimmune disease, which causes my immune system to be on the not-so-good end of the spectrum. I have been approached by people with the ‘you must have lived in a bubble’ opinion for years now and (I have to admit) it would be refreshing to see a new argument.

To be honest, I find today’s aim for perfection irritating. I know 300,000 seems like a large amount of people to be hospitalized for food poisoning alone, but I wonder how much higher that number was sixty or seventy years ago. Even if the difference between the years isn’t that drastic, parents had more important things to think about than whether they should increase the amount of excrement in their children’s diets. Back then parents were more worried about their children getting the measles than how much ‘crap’ they were eating. I just think that maybe American journalists, educators, and society in general should take a step back and look at the world around us. There are children in other countries that don’t even have something to eat everyday, and we’re worried about 300,000 people a year who get sick…and probably deserve it. I mean seriously…I wouldn’t be surprised if half of that number got food poisoning because they had gorged themselves on turkey or ham left out for an entire day in ‘celebration’ of one of the many gluttonous American holidays.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article interested me a lot do to my overwhelming interest in such areas as food. And after reading it I almost laughed. In high school I had about 4 nutrition and food base classes and we spent a lot of our time studying diseases within food. The handling of carcasses as it becomes food. As well as the process of food becoming food.

Needless to say I have been a vegetarian going on almost 5 years now…

But I would have to say that if we all became vegetarians it would take care of this problem, but with today’s society and growing population if that happened we would run out of food! Though I would agree that if more research is done on the human body and how they can eat and hold their food and so forth it might make it better when it comes to what we can eat without getting sick. Though with the society today would they want to eat it?

8:07 AM  

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