Paranoid About Poop? The Truth About Fecal Contamination & A Better Way to Reduce Your Risk of Illness

Milk shouldn’t be drunk raw because, well, look at where the cow’s udder is located – at the same end of the cow as her…<gulp>…”you know what!”

This is the message I heard a government official deliver in response to a presentation advocating raw milk by Sally Fallon Morell of the Weston A. Price Foundation. That official was Heidi Kassenborg, director of the Dairy & Food Inspection Division of Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The venue was an open debate, put on by Harvard University’s Food Law Society. It’s been a year and a half since the debate, but I still can’t get out of my head  the cartoon image of the cow that  Kassenborg displayed so prominently in her presentation.  The implication was that it should be obvious to anyone, even a child, why milk shouldn’t be drunk raw.

This got me thinking more and more about poop/feces/manure/bodily waste or whatever you want to call it and whether it’s necessarily as dangerous and sickening as it’s made out to be. Not that I *want* to be consuming it, but how diligent must I be about ensuring that I or my child never come in contact with it? Is this even realistic? And is that a valid reason to think twice about drinking raw milk?

Good Poop – The Kind You Actually Want

That’s right. Poop is not all bad. The Encyclopedia of Earth states that:

Most fecal microorganisms…are not pathogenic. Indeed, some are considered beneficial to the host as they can outcompete pathogens for space and nutrients, complement the biochemical potential of the host’s gastrointestinal tract, and help in the development of the host immune system.

Consider the following:

  • Cow manure has been used for centuries to fertilize crops for human consumption and is consistently touted as one of the most effective fertilizers for growing the most flavorful and nutrient-dense crops, thanks to the vast macro- and micro-nutrients it delivers to soil in their most bio-available forms. (The requirement to compost the manure first is a modern recommendation, since the composting process raises the temperature enough to kill off disease causing organisms (pathogens) like e. Coli and salmonella, which were not a problem until very recently.)
  • Mammalian offspring, including human babies, come in contact with at least trace amounts of their mother’s feces when they are born. Studies like this one point out that infants acquire stronger immunities when born vaginally since they acquire their gut flora from maternal vaginal and fecal flora (3). We now know that gut flora (also known as microbiota, and collectively referred as the microbiome) are key to many bodily functions, including digestion, nutrient absorption, body weight, mental function, energy levels and susceptibility to disease.
  • Many studies have shown that growing up on a traditional farm, which inevitably involves some contact with animal feces, seems to protect against the development of asthma and [allergies] [7 8 9].
  • This recent article in the Economist references a study conducted by Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University in St. Louis in which he collected stool samples from 4 pairs of human twins, where one was obese and the other was not. He transferred the twins’ bacteria sets to sets of mice.  The mice with the obese twins’ bacteria became obese and the others did not. He then put all the mice together so that they could be exposed to each other’s poop and therefore bacteria. “Bacteria from the lean mice made their way to the mice with the obese twin’s bacteria, preventing those mice from gaining weight and developing other metabolic abnormalities.”
  • One of the most exciting new medical breakthroughs and something that is proving more effective than antibiotics in treating hospital-infections, like C-diff (clostridium difficile) is fecal transplants, also known as fecal bacteriotherapy. This means inserting the feces of a healthy individual into the rectum of the infected person in order to help populate their intestines with “good” species of bacteria and other microorganisms, which can then fight off the offending pathogen. This approach has been found to be far more effective than antibiotics.

These are all examples of where poop is not only safe, but desirable thanks to the benefits that it transfers to others.

Dangerous Poop

E. ColiOn the other hand, fecal contamination has been a very real and valid concern since at least the mid 1800s, when the scientific community learned, thanks to the Cholera outbreak, that feces in water can cause disease in humans.  While Cholera has been virtually eliminated in developed countries, thanks to better sanitation and sewage practices,  people can and often do contract other serious pathogens, such as Campylobacter,  Listeria Monocytoges or e-Coli 0157:H7 from direct or indirect contact with fecal matter.  The stomach cramps you may experience after drinking the water in a developing country or the “food poisoning” you come down with after dining at a restaurant could likely be due to fecal contamination somewhere in the water or food chain.

The difference today is that new strains of pathogens, such as E. Coli O104:H4, are emerging at unprecedented rates thanks to the widespread use of antibiotics on animals as a growth accelerator (as opposed to selective use to treat infections).

All Poop is not Created Equal, In Terms of Risk

The two sources of poop that I believe are the most likely to harbor pathogens and therefore the most dangerous come from:

  1. animals raised in factory farms, which is more than 99% of all farmed animals in the U.S., according to Farm Forward. In other words, the poop from most dairy cows or beef cattle *is* highly dangerous.
  2. to a lesser extent, carnivorous or omnivorous animals, who could be ingesting other infected animals, such as shark, pigs, cats and alligator.

This is not to say that all poop from these sources is necessarily infected, but the chances are relatively high.

Safer Poop

There is a kind of poop that is far less likely to be harboring virulent or deadly pathogens. It comes from non-meat-eating animals, such as herbivores, when they are properly cared for. This last part is crucial. For example, they must (1) spend sufficient time on pasture, (2) be fed forage (fresh greenery that’s growing on pasture or dried as hay) as opposed to corn and soy-based feed, and (3) not be treated with antibiotics. In fact, routine use of antibiotics is what caused these pathogens to become problematic in the first place. This is not to say that all animals raised properly will be pathogen free, bur rather, that the probability that pathogens are present will be drastically lower than, say, factory farm animals.

Proper Diet Combats Pathogens

In her book Safe FoodMarion Nestle, NYU’s Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, who is also trained in microbiology, explains on Pg. 47 how pathogen infections in animals can actually be prevented through diet. She states:

Typically, producers feed cattle soy and corn to fatten the animals just before slaughter; these foods are low in fiber, reduce the acidity  of digestive solutions, and promote the growth of unfriendly bacteria. In contrast, feeding high fiber hay to ruminant animals selects for friendlier bacteria capable of breaking down cellulose to usable nutrients. Animals fed hay prior to slaughter generate less than 1% of the E. coli 0157:H7 usually present in the feces of grain-fed animals, and they become free of the undesirable bacteria in just a few days.

There are also a number of studies that indicate that raw milk from properly raised and fed cows contain microorganisms that actually kill pathogens.  This presentation by The Weston A Price Foundation states on slide 2:

Consider the calf, born in a muddy pasture, which then suckles on its mother’s often manure-covered teat. How can that calf, or any mammal survive? Because raw milk contains multiple, natural, redundant systems of bioactive components that can reduce or eliminate populations of pathogenic bacteria.

The slides that follow elaborate on this by detailing some of the pathogen-fighting components of raw milk, such as Lactoferrin, which is FDA approved for use in anti-microbial spray to combat E. coli O157:H7 contamination in meat industry! But alas, this protein’s effectiveness is greatly reduced by pasteurization.

Humans’ ability to tolerate pathogens are also dependent in large part on their health, which is strongly linked to diet.  The odds vary by pathogen and degree of exposure, but a large factor impacting illness susceptibility is the microbial makeup of the person’s gut (or intestines). You may notice during a pathogen outbreak that it’s typically those people with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly, who are most affected by pathogen outbreaks. It also explains why people in countries like Mexico have no problem with the local water, but American tourists frequently fall ill even when going out of their way to avoid the tap water. Mexicans’ digestions are used to it! But for an American, just a few drops of the water on a raw fruit or salad greens is enough to make some people violently ill. I personally have never experienced illness from traveling to places like Mexico or Turkey, which I’ve visited numerous times, yet I know others who repeatedly fall ill every time they visit these countries.

Why take the risk? Why not reduce risks by mandating that foods be pasteurized, irradiated and/or thoroughly cooked?

In her book Safe Food, Nestle explains why the political climate in the US would never favor pathogen prevention due to the immense political power held by the industrial agriculture industry. I can’t argue with that. Her own recommendations in the book are centered around post-contamination pathogen destruction, using techniques such as irradiation. While this might be an effective short-term band-aid, I believe it’s a horrible long-term solution, as it ultimately does society more harm than good. Here’s why:

  • Pathogen reduction techniques are not 100% effective. For instance, some strains of Salmonella and E. coli are resistant to radiation treatment, as the FDA recently discovered when examining some imported spices earlier this year.
  • You can’t only kill the “bad critters” (pathogens).  Radiation, pasteurization and cooking indiscriminately kills most, if not all microorganisms, including the kind that fight off pathogens, strengthen humans immune systems, help prevent metabolic problems and improve brain function.
  • Partial pathogen destruction, such as radiation, disrupts the balance of microbiota and enables certain strains that might ordinarily be kept “in check” by other strains to proliferate.  This imbalance results in unintended consequences, such as the growth of new pathogens.
  • Regular consumption of “dead” and “sterilized” foods deprives our bodies of the opportunity to develop a natural resistance to common microbes that we simply can’t avoid all the time since they are present in water, soil, air and nearly every surface. “Whole” foods are so much more than the sum of their nutritional subcomponents. They all bring with them an invisible colony of bacteria, enzymes, molds and/or yeasts, most, if not all of which are killed when subjected to pathogen destruction methods. For example, cow milk comes with over 40 different enzymes, all of which are destroyed upon pasteurization.
  • Pathogen destruction techniques change the composition and therefore the healthfulness of foods in other ways as well. For example, radiating fruits and vegetables interferes with the post-pick ripening process. This is good for food transporters who don’t want fruits to be damaged in shipment. But it’s bad for consumers who are deprived of the superior taste and healthfulness of a fully ripe fruit. These processes also disable a seed’s ability to sprout or germinate. Many health-conscious consumers want to sprout grains, seeds and legumes in order to improve nutrient content and digestibility.
  • Mandated pathogen reduction methods, if forced on small local producers, reduces consumer choice by driving these producers out of business due to their high cost to implement.

Conclusion and Recommendations

  • We must address the root cause of virulent pathogens and stop breeding them in the first place. Poop is a fact of life, so we had better learn how to make it safe enough to live with. A good place to start is by banning the use of antibiotics as animal growth aids, as Europe and other developed countries have done.
  • The best way to fight fire is with fire. Similarly, the best way to fight bacteria is with bacteria – specifically the good kind, sometimes referred to as probiotics. Americans should adapt both their diets and lifestyles to allow for exposure to more species of beneficial microorganisms (bacteria, enzymes, yeast, fungi). A little less handwashing could be a good thing unless, of course, you work in a hospital, factory farm or other such environment that breeds virulent pathogens. Diet changes are also important. Increasing one’s intake of yogurt is nowhere near enough. Yogurt supplies 3-5 different bacterial species, but the human gut is comprised of somewhere between 300 and 1000 different species, so variety of exposure is key. Aged and fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso, kefir, fermented cod liver oil and aged cheeses can help. Carefully sourced raw meat (including organs), milk and eggs also provide an opportunity to be exposed to different microorganisms.
  • Contact with the environment is also very key. Don’t freak out when your child eats dirt, shares his sippy cup with a friend or paints the house with the contents of his diaper. Of course you should clean up the “paint”, but dousing your house with bleach, as Clorox suggests in their latest ads, is going too far, in my opinion. And of course you want to be smart about all of this. Dirt from your chemically-treated lawn is more dangerous than the dirt from your organically tended garden.
  • Our government should scale back some of the taxpayer money spent on pushing forth pathogen destruction legislation as well as all the consumer education on safe food handling/cooking practices. These both give people a false sense of safety and never address the root cause of the problem. These dollars should be reallocated to research and regulations around pathogen prevention. This budget reallocation may result in a few more people falling ill or even dying each year as a result of pathogen contamination, the tradeoffs would be that so many more illnesses and deaths can be prevented as a result of allowing more beneficial microbes back into our food supply so that Americans’ immune systems can strengthen.
  • Consumers should avoid factory-farm foods whenever possible, but especially for foods intended to be consumed raw or rare, such as carpaccio, steak tartare and aioli, which is made from raw egg yolks.  I especially recommend avoiding industrially commingled products, where the meat or milk from thousands of animals are combined into large batches (e.g. milk, ground meat, hot dogs and deli meats). This increase the chances that an individual is exposed to the pathogens from a single infected animal included in the batch.
  • Remember to vote with your dollars!! Lower sales is the best way to convince the industrial food industry that we expect greater food quality and safer production practices and are willing to pay more for it.
  • Safe food handling practices are still a good idea, but primarily for foods that fall into the dangerous categories above. Just remember that it’s nearly impossible to prevent exposure 100% and going overboard with disinfectants can actually have a harmful effect on your health.
  • If someone gives you the childishly ignorant argument that raw milk is dangerous due to the proximity of the cow’s udder to her anus, then please enlighten them!


One thought on “Paranoid About Poop? The Truth About Fecal Contamination & A Better Way to Reduce Your Risk of Illness

  1. have to agree with this ! but can give an example of what some animals are being fed ! I worked for nine years in the poultry industry ! we produced eggs by the millions , the layer houses are two story affairs with cages in the top and a pit in the bottom half where all the waste goes ! this waste is used for several purposes ! some goes into the production of shampoos and cosmetics , some is used as fertilizer , and some is mixed with ground up news print , baked into pellets and used as animal feed ! chickens utilize only a small part of what they eat ! so chicken manure is chock full of protein ! lot of it is fed to lambs and sheep !

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