Unseen by the human eye, dangerous microorganisms can silently contaminate any appetizing meal. Tiny as they may be, once ingested, these one celled bacterium have an extraordinary ability to create havoc within the human body. Although there are many different pathogenic microorganisms, the E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium is one of the most common and dangerous. Even though it was discovered twenty years ago, E. coli 0157:H7 has only recently been recognized by the public because of its sudden prevalence in America's food supply. Most commonly found in ground beef, E. coli 0157:H7 tainted hamburgers are the leading cause of human infection. In the past ten years about half a million Americans have been made ill from E. coli 0157:H7.

E. coli 0157:H7 is a mutated version of the friendly E. coli bacteria which lives in our body. Most E. coli bacteria help us to digest food, produce enzymes, and guard against threatening organisms, but the mutated version is not so friendly; an infected person generally experiences bloody diarrhea and intense stomach cramps while young children and the elderly are prone to much more serious illness and even death. Once ingested, E. coli 0157:H7 releases a toxic substance called a Shiga toxin. Usually the Shiga toxin attacks only the intestinal wall (resulting in bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps) but in four percent of the reported cases it also enters into the bloodstream and can lead to kidney failure, anemia, internal bleeding, the destruction of vital organs, seizures, neurological damage, and strokes. E. coli 0157:H7 infection has also become the leading cause of kidney failure in children in the U.S.

Although anyone can become ill from E. coli 0157:H7, it has had the most drastic and horrendous effects on children. In 1993, after eating a contaminated hamburger, six year old Alex Donley was overcome by extreme stomach cramps and a bloody bout of diarrhea. He was in so much pain that his parents rushed him to the hospital. He was one of the four percent- the Shiga toxins had entered his bloodstream and began to destroy his internal organs. Five days after eating the tainted hamburger meat, Alex was dead. Unfortunately, in the past decade, hundreds of other children have died a similarly brutal death by consuming E. coli 0157:H7 contaminated hamburger meat.

As one great mind of the past said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. More and more people are becoming increasingly aware of the many dangers of meat consumption and in accordance with the law of supply and demand, meat-free alternatives have hit the market. Now you can buy meat-free hamburgers, deli slices, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and bacon, just to name a few. In fact, Burger King has now jumped on the bandwagon and added a new item to their menu, a meat-free hamburger! Most cannot even tell the difference between the newly innovated "healthy" meat and the old. Until recently, tasty and healthy did not seem to go hand in hand, but now healthy has gained a whole new meaning. There is no longer a need to eat a diet laced with danger.

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*The information in this article was taken from Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.