For nearly ten years we've known how to prevent E. coli contamination of our food supply. And yet, we continue to deal with the problem the hard way...wait for an illness and then recall any meat that might be contaminated.
That shotgun approach put Topps Meat Company out of business when it had to recall 21.7 million pounds of frozen hamburger patties in 2007. Sam's Club and its supplier, Cargill, followed shortly thereafter with an 800,000 pound beef recall. None of these actions did anything to prevent more E. coli illnesses in the future.
To understand the solution, we need to appreciate how the problem developed.
Cattle evolved as grazing herbivores with four compartments in their stomach, each designed to help break down the cellulose in grass.
We began to tamper with that finely-tuned machine of Mother Nature after World War II by changing their natural grass diet to grain. It's fed to cattle in enormous feedlots where they stand for four to six months of their lives with only one purpose…to gain weight. At first, it seemed to be a brilliant idea. The cattle gained weight quickly and developed intra-muscular fat which clever marketers labeled "marbling." The phrase "corn-fed, marbled beef" eventually symbolized the best you could eat.
The fuel driving this new economic model was cheap corn, made possible by a U.S. government program left over from the New Deal. In the 1930's, the Roosevelt Administration developed programs to save small farms by supporting wheat, cotton, corn and a handful of other commodities. But long after the small Depression-era farms were saved, the subsidy programs continued…with the opposite effect. By pouring money into a few of these commodity markets, small farms became prey for large, corporate operations intent on consolidation. By 2003, the largest 9% of the operations generated 73% of all U.S. farm output. And, more impressive, the largest producers received 51% of federal farm program payments that allowed them to gobble up more small farms with government money.
The security of subsidies encouraged record corn crops year after year. And a huge supply of corn demanded big sales. Hence, the concentrated feeding operations that supplied America's growing appetite for beef.
The DNA of our current E. coli problem and indeed, of the obesity epidemic in America, can be found in a spiraling symbiotic relationship between corn, beef and fast food.
The E. coli problem lies in what happens inside the cow's stomach. When corn replaces grass as the primary diet, it changes the bacteria inside the rumen, the 'final filter' of digestion. With a grass diet, most of the microbes in the cow's stomach are killed there. But inside the new, corn-based bacteria, lurks a man-made culprit.
It was discovered in 1980...a new strain of a common intestinal bacterium, E.coli 0157:H7. It is serious because it gets past the first line of defense against food-borne pathogens...stomach acid. It causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and even death from kidney failure. The CDC reports that more infections in the U.S. have been caused by eating undercooked ground beef than any other food…ground beef that undoubtedly came from grain-fed cattle.
In 1998, scientists from Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in Science Magazine that grain-based cattle diets promote the growth of this acid-resistant strain of E. coli. In addition, they went further to observe that changing the diet from grain to hay…the natural, dried grass diet of cattle...for only five days before slaughter could reduce the number of E. coli bacteria by 80%.
Other scientists challenged those findings until the 2000 Nebraska Beef Report published a study that confirmed the original Cornell research that feeding hay for a short duration can reduce acid-resistant E. coli populations.
What are we to think? There are more than 20,000 infections and 200 deaths each year in the United States caused by E. coli 0157:H7. Headlines of meat recalls seem commonplace. Solutions offered range from irradiating meat or using ultraviolet light to cooking at high temperatures. But the easiest and least expensive solution is changing the diet from grain to hay for the final five days before a feedlot harvest. And yet, it is not among the options we hear being considered by the beef industry. If more study is needed, let's do it. It could be the cheaper and cleaner solution to a very serious problem.
—Bill Kurtis, Chairman and Founder of Tallgrass Beef Company