Why Americans should ingest more excrement.
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?
Kent Sepkowitz is a physician in New York City who writes about medicine.
Photograph of beef patties on Slate home page by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.