The night market is buzzing with people and energy. After a day of visiting temples and other tourist attractions recommended by the travel guide, it’s time for dinner. The air is humid after a hot day and monsoon showers. The puddles are now slowly evaporating, the rainwater disappearing into drains and seeping into the soil.
On my way to the food stalls the colourful fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables in baskets look inviting. The fragrance of spices captivates the senses. The pungent aroma of dead fish tickles the nostrils. Meat stall owners display their goods on tables and on hooks attached to the stalls’ supporting structures. Whole skinned goats and pigs dangle from the beams, along with legs and other body parts from cows and sheep. Tied by their feet and hanging head down, live chickens have given up struggling. Buzzing around the meat are armies of flies.
Flies and other insects play an important role in consuming and eliminating dead bodies of animals. They are essential in the conversion of faeces and decaying vegetation to soil. Because they are attracted to faeces and decaying meat, flies spread diseases such as dysentery, typhoid fever and cholera.
Could this explain last week’s bout of food poisoning that kept me in my hotel room for three days? I decide that the meat stalls here in this Asian country look too unhygienic and I’ll stick to a vegetarian diet for the duration of my holiday. The variety and abundance of vegetables and fruit make this an easy choice.
Back at home, I read about a young woman in the US who was left paralysed after eating an Escherichia coli (E. coli) contaminated hamburger. Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, had a severe reaction to a hamburger that resulted in kidney failure, seizures and convulsions. It left her cognitively and physically disabled. A two-year-old boy called Kevin died in 2002 after eating an E. coli contaminated hamburger. His mother has since become an advocate for food safety.
In Australia, E. coli found in a semi-dry fermented meat sausage (Mettwurst) in 1995 affected 23 children between the ages of four months and 12 years. Sixteen required renal dialysis and one child died. Although Australia has a foodborne disease surveillance system, OZFoodNet, not all people with food poisoning seek medical attention. Therefore, the true extent of foodborne illness is not known. Notified cases in 2009 totalled 9,533 for Salmonella, 15,973 for Campylobacter, and 130 for E. coli infection.
The meat in a hamburger is often a combination of meat from different parts of cows that are not from the same slaughterhouse. In this way, meat companies can reduce the cost of ground beef. This also increases the likelihood of the meat having been in contact with faeces, which carry E. coli. Why would the meat have come in contact with faeces? Conditions in the sheds where animals are kept are far from hygienic.
Many factory farmed animals live in their own faeces. For example, more than five million turkeys per year are farmed in Australia, the vast majority by large commercial growers with sometimes more than 30,000 birds kept on a farm. They live in sheds and are given space the size of an A3 piece of paper per bird. The layer of litter they live on is made up of rice hulls, straw or wood shavings, which is not changed during the birds’ life in the shed. Just imagine the stench.
We know that the animals whose flesh, milk and eggs we eat have to eat. Our picture of what exactly they eat is often idealised. Hormones and antibiotics (antimicrobials) are routinely fed and traces of these pharmaceuticals remain in the meat sold for human consumption. In many countries, the use of antibiotics in animals is greater than that in humans. Up to 70 % of all antibiotics sold in the US are being fed to healthy cattle, pigs and poultry on industrial animal farms. These drugs are not used to treat bacterial infections, but to offset unhygienic conditions and to stimulate and accelerate growth.
The routine use of antibiotics in food animals is problematic for human health because it creates new strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria which can spread to humans through the food chain. The antibiotics used are similar to, or the same as, those used in humans. Resistance to antibiotics in humans often results in longer and more serious illness, and can even lead to death. More than 25,000 people in the European Union die from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year. A recent U.S. study found that nearly half of the meat and poultry samples were contaminated with ‘Golden Staph’ (Staphylococcus aureus). More than half of those bacteria were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics.
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