Feedlots and E. Coli

The New York Times pointed out how a flawed and inadequate USDA meat inspection system has jeopardized the safety of those who eat meat and makes the simple act of eating a burger a potential game of Russian roulette.

E. coli O157:H7, a virulent bacteria found in cattle manure was first identified in 1975 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and identified as a cause of human illness in 1982.

E. coli was first identified in 1885, but this new, more virulent strain, produces toxins that severely damage the intestinal lining (hemorrhagic colitis). The CDC estimates 0157:H7 causes 73,000 cases of illness and 61 deaths per year in the US.

According to the CDC, since 2004, the rates of illness due to 0157:H7 have actually increased. Control measures to decrease the incidence of contamination at slaughter plants initially showed positive results, but the trend has reversed.

Why are food safety measures failing? Why did the O157:H7 show up seemingly out of nowhere and why is it becoming more widespread?

With the dawn of high production agriculture after World War II, cattle that had traditionally been fed a grass and forage diet (to which they were naturally adapted), were moved into huge feedlots holding thousands of cattle and finished on a diet of grain. “Corn fed beef” became the American standard, tender, juicy, artery clogging and energy intensive.

University research indicates that changing the diet of cattle from forage to grain is very likely a cause of the increased incidence of O157:H7. Interesting how the rise of O157:H7 so closely parallels the rise of the feedlot industry.

Is it just coincidence that O157:H7 seemed to arrive as huge feedlots and grain diets became the norm for US cattle production? Is it coincidence that the vast majority of beef recalls have been from huge meat processors, those that grind beef from multiple sources and use ammonia to kill bacteria clinging to the meat?

No coincidence, it’s cause and effect. I’ve seen feedlots where thousands of cattle wade knee deep in manure. Their hides covered with manure, they carry it into the processing plants; the source of contamination has entered the food chain.

I have also watched pasture fed cattle in small local processing plants being carefully and slowly processed. No manure covered hides, no meat of unknown origin; here the potential for contamination is greatly reduced.

Processing over 400 animals per hour, a recipe for contaminated meat, is commonplace in plants responsible for most meat recalls. As low wage workers struggle to keep up with the machinery in one of Americas most dangerous occupations, they must also struggle to keep the meat “clean”.

Rather than wait for the contamination to enter the plant, wouldn’t it make sense to stop it before it starts? Feeding more antibiotics could reduce the levels of O157:H7 in cattle, but is that the answer?

If high grain diets support a higher incidence of O157:H7, shouldn’t we go back to feeding animals the grass and forage they were meant to eat, so we don’t need to feed antibiotics.

Improving processing plant inspections is a good idea, but it is only part of the solution. The real solution is minimizing the potential contaminant. Secondly, slow down the processing line so the workers can do their jobs.

CDC tells people to wash their hands, their cutting boards and to cook meat thoroughly. Good sound suggestions, but why is the burden of safety inordinately placed on the consumer? Why are the processors allowed to hide behind the “safe handling instructions” and maximize their profits with impunity?

In what amounts to a sea change at UDSA, Secretary Vilsack has launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign to promote local food production, processing and consumption. He is on to something; safer food, more nutritious food and a revitalized rural economy. Food safety doesn’t have to be complex, mostly it depends on common sense.

JIM GOODMAN is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc WI and a IATP Food and Society Fellow.

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.