What if Every Thanksgiving Turkey in America Was Contaminated With E. Coli?

It's fine. Don't panic. Just a thought exercise.


Here at ‘Inverse’, we like to explore horrifying, if unlikely, scenarios. That’s why we’ve publicly mulled what would happen if Cleveland’s corpses rose from their graves, if a Tyrannosaur got loose in Minneapolis, and if there were a nuclear meltdown in Kansas. This week, we give America’s feasting tradition something to digest.

As a species, Escherichia coli gets a bad rap. Certain E. coli strains are frolicking in your guts as you read this, causing not the slightest bit of indigestion. Microbiological research, as a field, relies on the bacteria as cheap, lab-friendly organism that produces vaccines, biofuels, and Ph.D.s. But there are, of course, the bad mogwai germs — the O157:H7 strain, for instance, pops out shiga toxins that slice through protein synthesis in a process similar to Walter White’s ricin. Accidentally scarf down a few dozen E coli of the shiga-toxin variety, and your kidneys could shut down. Being the Thanksgiving demons we are, let’s consider what would happen if every turkey in America was contaminated with this unfriendly microbe. (Some actually are, but let’s not dwell on that.)

The first thing to note is that there would be a whole lot of bad birds. America will stuff 46 million turkeys down its collective craw on Thursday, the National Turkey Federation estimates, with almost nine in 10 Americans partaking in the other other white meat. E. coli contamination generally occurs when fecal matter is accidentally ground into turkey meat so an exposure on this scale is as plausible as a Roland Emmerich plot. What we’re talking about, in short, is a biological attack — and a devastating one at that.

Of the U.S. population of 319 million, some 280 million people would be exposed. Exposure alone doesn’t mean infection, though the elderly and children under five years old are at the greatest risk. In about one in 50 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to E. coli would cause severe kidney damage. In 2005, the CDC conducted an epidemiological study of 20 years of E. coli O157 outbreaks, corresponding to 8,598 cases. Many of the people who fell ill — 17.4 percent — were hospitalized, and 0.5 percent of cases were fatal.

In the worst of the worst-case scenarios, that’s 48 million Americans heading to a hospital and 1.4 million deaths. (That number would increase the annual deaths in the United States by 50 percent, assuming none of the people were going to die of other causes.) The healthcare system would be overwhelmed, to put it mildly. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated in 2010 that the U.S. has 3.1 hospital beds per 1,000 people — for every person sick with E. coli in a hospital bed, dozens would have to look elsewhere.


Could reports of massive numbers of East Coasters tucking into Thanksgiving and getting violently ill save the parts of the country three hours behind? Unlikely. The incubation period for E. coli averages about half a week from ingestion to symptoms, though for a fraction of the exposed populace Black Friday will be even darker than usual.

Again, this isn’t going to happen, but let’s all choose to be thankful for the people that keep our enemies from using Thanksgiving as a Trojan Horse. Food inspectors are heroes. Food inspectors deserve our thanks — and an extra drumstick.

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