One of the drawbacks of being a vagabond writer is the health risk that constant travel entails -- bandits with guns on third world borders, malaria in jungles and the occasional bout of Montezuma's revenge from a steak that hasn't been cooked properly.

Food poisoning can hit the traveler anywhere and it pays to be on your guard. I was recently hanging out in a country where everyday around 200,000 people get sick from bad food, 900 are hospitalised and 14 die.

All in all it was quite a scary experience eating out in the U.S.A.

Of course, having grown up in England, I'd long been made paranoid that the hamburgers I'd eaten as a kid might come back to get me. Heating up frozen burgers and fries saved my parents the effort of preparing a real meal but once BSE (otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease) hit the news, we threw the burgers in the trash. The disease soon skipped the species barrier and infected humans under the variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease or vCJD.

Estimates vary but it's thought that close to a million cows with BSE were eaten in the UK in the 1980's and it's still anyone's guess how long vCJD takes to incubate. The danger might have passed or else millions might yet die. You eats your burger, you takes your chance.

Of course, until recently the American meat industry was adamant that there were no cows with BSE in the U.S. and, anyway, everyone was far too worried about E. coli to think too much about it. The outbreaks of E. coli poisoning at Jack in the Box outlets in 1993 drew everyone's attention to a potentially lethal and remarkably hardy pathogen that seemed to target children in particular.

That particular incident put hundreds in the hospital in several different states and killed at least four.

The Jack in the Box E. coli food poisoning was alarming for various reasons. While in some victims they caused mere stomach cramps, in others they caused kidney failure and heart attacks and the suffering of the victims, most of them children, can scarcely be imagined.

E coli actually exists as a friendly presence in the human gut, helping digest food but this particular variety, E. coli 0157:H7, has the potential to release powerful toxins that can cause organ failure or even neurological damage.

However, as dreadful as these cases were, the real cause for concern was that, in a single outbreak, individuals across four states were infected. Our modern economic infrastructure, industry practices and desire to make a buck have made it possible to poison with the same bacteria people who live hundreds of miles apart.

I've been safe and sound in India the past few months but back in the States, they tell me, outbreaks of food poisoning from peanut butter, spinach, grilled chicken strips and tacos have chipped away at Americans' confidence about their food supply.

A Fact of Life

Food poisoning has been a fact of existence since the dawn of time but, in the past, cases were likely to be contained to a single locale. Someone in the kitchen forgot to wash their hands and kids at a school picnic or the clientele of a diner all got sick. The source could be quickly identified, appropriate action could be taken and that was the end of the story.

The meat industry and fast food chains changed all of that.

With the advent of franchising, pioneered by Ray Croc of McDonald's, the fashion was started of serving the exact same produce in any outlet up and down the country. The burgers had to look, smell and taste the same to create consumer trust.

The success of McDonald's and its copycat competitors meant that the meat industry was obliged to change the way they delivered their meat.

When I was young, I always wanted to be a cowboy. While I reckoned myself good gunslinger material, I would also have been happy to just be riding the plains, lassoing cattle and playing the harmonica around camp fires.

Sadly, the ideal of the lone, independent rancher today faces economic ruin at the hands of the meat industry that, like so many others, consolidated under the Reagan administration. With fast food chains striving to serve ever-cheaper burgers, the meatpacking industry forces prices so low that independent ranchers just don't stand a chance.

As the feedlots consolidated to meet the market demand of fast food and supermarket chains, so did the slaughter houses. Meat packing firms followed the example of McDonald's and observed that wages could be cut by operating plants as assembly lines. Henry Ford would have been so proud.

Instead of paying skilled workers a living wage, immigrants, teenagers and itinerant workers are found to work parttime (often with only minimal benefits or insurance), performing the same function over and over again.

The cattle are herded in and one person kills the cows, one after the other with barely a pause for the whole of his shift. Another scoops out the intestines and organs. Another makes the vital cuts.

With the pressure to deliver more beef as fast as possible, the exhausted workers can barely look after their own health, much less worry about sterilising the knives they use.

The E. coli Connection

So what does all this have to with E. coli?

The pathogen is spread by fecal matter and with cows raised together in crowded feedlots, slaughtered by the thousands each day in claustrophobic plants by overworked, under-skilled operatives, the chances of E. coli getting into the ground beef are unreasonably high.

The ground beef is then made into uniform hamburger patties to serve the chains and provide that generic hamburger taste. It also means that one sample of E. coli could end up being spread up and down the country. As Eric Schlosser, renowned critic of the fast food industry points out:

"The meat packing industry that evolved to serve the nation's fast food chains ... has proved to be an extremely efficient system for spreading disease."

Interestingly, although the fast food chains may in part be blamed for the proliferation of E. coli, they have since become significant players in bringing the meatpacking industry up to scratch. Not that the chains are exactly known for their altruism but safety simply had to be guaranteed if consumers weren't to be frightened away.

It was Jack in the Box who came up with the "from the farm to the fork" program and they laid down strict rules for maintaining hygiene at each stage of production -- suppliers soon had come up to scratch if they wanted to do business with the chain.

The trouble is, it's not just the packing of the meat that puts us at risk. It's how the cows are kept and fed, a process that breaks with hundreds of thousands of years of nature in the bid to raise cattle, destined to be ground up and slotted between two slices of processed bread. Which brings us back to BSE.

Oprah's Revelation

For many Americans, the truth about the process of raising cattle came from the lips of Oprah Winfrey.

In a show that was to send beef prices tumbling and invite an unsuccessful lawsuit, Oprah invited a prominent activist, Howard Lyman, on her show to explain exactly what cows in America were fed. He explained that far from getting by only on grass and grain, cattle were routinely fed meat, blood, brains and intestines of other cows, sheep, poultry and even euthanized domestic animals -- pets, in other words.

But as graphic as the idea of feeding the family dog to help raise a new batch of burger meat was, Lyman stressed that the most striking aspect was that of feeding cows beef:

"We've not only turned them into carnivores, we've turned them into cannibals." he said.

English scientists had long indicated that it was the process of recycling dead animals into cattle feed that had led to the BSE pandemic. What made the process any different in America?

Speaking later to the press in the wake of the lawsuit, Oprah summed it up: "Cows eating cows is alarming." Good old Oprah.

For years, the American meat industry refused to acknowledge the presence of BSE in American cattle. The disease had never been found in the U.S., they declared, and they were absolutely right. Of course, the fact that no one had really looked that hard for it also comes to mind.

While some countries test every cow that enters the food chain, the U.S. tests around 1% of the cows destined for your plate.

There have only been 3 cases of BSE found in the U.S., which would seem to be very few. There are lies, damned lies and statistics, however.

Thousands of cows die at farms each year from unknown causes and meatpackers are relied upon to conduct tests themselves. Unsurprisingly, few are willing to jeopardise their business by testing unstable, aggressive cows, ones that display BSE symptoms.

So what's being done about the dangers of E. coli and BSE? Surely the meat industry doesn't want to poison the nation?

The spirit of the response can be seen in the comments of the American Meat Institute shortly after the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993. A spokesperson declared:

"This outbreak sheds light on a nationwide problem: inconsistent information about proper cooking temperatures for hamburgers."

You know, nothing to do with the manure spilled all over processing plants.

But if big business is too worried about losing money to take more care over meat production, feed cows natural food or introduce mandatory testing, surely a democratic government wouldn't stand by and just watch while its population is poisoned and infected?

And, indeed, various administrations have acted to introduce testing protocols and place limits on just what may be fed to cattle. Trouble is, the guidelines have been more or less voluntary.

Overworked supervisors at meatpacking plants have been shown to regularly falsify reports and cows are still allowed to eat cattle blood in their feed, plus the bodies of pigs, sheep, horses and chickens. Chickens, incidentally, also get to eat dead cattle.

Why would the meatpacking industry be allowed to get away with this and why can't companies be forced to recall burgers that are suspected to be infected? The answer goes back to the close ties the industry has with Congress.

With strong allies in the Republican Party in particular, financial donations and the threat of closing plants and creating massive unemployment by moving to another state, has meant that politicians have long danced to the tune of the meat industry.

Take, for example, Creekstone Farms in Kansas, who want to test all their cows for BSE to increase consumer confidence.

All well and good but unfortunately the federal government wouldn't allow them to. Under pressure from the meatpacking industry, scared that they might be obliged to follow suit, the government cited an obscure regulation dating back to 1913 that prevented companies from selling the testing kits for BSE to Creekstone.

Home Cooking

I'm often asked if I get sick a lot in my travels. It happens from time to time, but when I go to the market in Mexico and see chickens that are yellow from eating corn all their lives, I feel much more confident than when I order some fried chicken back home that was probably fed a whole zoo of dead ground animals to fatten it up.

The assembly line was an evolution in 20th century industries that provided cheap products for the consumer. Cars, clothes, hi-tech products, most of us could finally afford them. What is genuinely disturbing though is when we apply the same principles to the food that we eat.

A chicken is not a nugget. And a cow is not a burger.

No one knows this better than those who work in and around the American food business. Ivan Fail drove a refrigerated truck hauling chickens and other livestock for 16 years, many of the loads originating at Tyson chicken plants in Arkansas and Missouri.

"Now since I was a farm boy who grew up in Kansas and had to clean chicken houses frequently, I soon lost my taste for chicken and for years had to struggle to choke down an egg," Fail told us.

"But when I started hauling loads of dead chicken out of Tyson plants in Rogers, Arkansas and Monett, Missouri my aversion to chicken was enhanced several times over. The Monett plant was the most foul (no pun intended) smelling plant imaginable."

Food has simply never been prepared like this in the history of humanity. If we persist in delivering uniform, cheap meat in unregulated, large-scale production, then we're just asking for trouble.

New food pathogens are found every year. They don't make the news because people's ability to remember Latin names and acronyms is limited. But if we don't begin to ask serious questions about what we put on our dinner plates and how it arrived there, then E. coli and BSE may be quite forgotten in the face of new horrors to come.

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Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com -- The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.