Lenny Russo: Tainted food calls for changes in farm practices for contamination

  • Article by: LENNY RUSSO
  • Updated: November 18, 2007 - 7:03 PM

To fight E. coli contamination, start by looking at the environment of animals.

An article published on Nov. 10, "Questions swirl around recent rise in E. coli cases," by reporter Matt McKinney, draws attention to the increase in the number of ground beef recalls and occurrences of food-borne illnesses across the country.

In the article, McKinney attempts to clarify some potential reasons for this dramatic rise. He notes that over 30 million pounds of ground beef in 18 separate recalls have been necessary this year alone, with the majority of them occurring since June. He compares that with only eight recalls in all of 2006. In so doing, McKinney quotes, among others, former Minnesota state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm and USDA Undersecretary Richard Raymond.

While the sources for this strange increase in E. coli contamination of our food supply are up for debate, the solutions are quite a bit more complicated. Osterholm would have us believe that the only solution is irradiating our food. He is quoted as saying, "The answer to all of this is irradiation," and he claims that criticizing industrial food processors "for producing dirty meat" is "too easy."

Somewhat in contrast, Undersecretary Raymond claims, "I think it's starting with the animal's environment." Who are we to believe, and what can be done to correct the problem?

If we are to follow Osterholm's suggestion, then the solution is quite simple. We should require that our entire food supply be subjected to irradiation before consuming it. Once again, we see a solution posed that is designed to treat the effect while ignoring the cause. It is somewhat akin to the cigarette smoker who would rather wait to develop cancer and then undergo treatment for it rather than just quit smoking.

A study by a group of Cornell microbiologists published in 2000 measured the occurrence of a particularly virulent strain of E. coli that is normally not present in large quantities in the intestines of mammals. In that study, the authors state that 6.3 million cells of E. coli were found in every gram of digesta from grain-fed cattle. By contrast, only 20,000 cells per gram were present in digesta from grass-fed cattle. What's more interesting is that the study determined that the number of E. coli cells from grain-fed cattle (250,000) are far more likely to survive in the human digestive tract than those from grass-fed cattle (100). Why this marked difference in the survival of the bacteria?

Cattle are ruminants, and they have evolved to eat grasses and forbs. Feeding grain to cattle makes their digestive tracts abnormally acidic. Over time, the E. coli in their systems become acclimated to this environment, thereby rendering it more resistant to the acid shock of our digestive juices. However, few E. coli from grass-fed cattle will survive because they have not become acid-resistant. Consequently, when cattle are fed a diet of grass, our natural defenses are still capable of protecting us.

In addition, when grain-fed cattle are packed into high-output feedlots on an industrial scale, they are standing all day in dirt and manure. It then becomes very difficult to remove all of the fecal contamination from those cattle. A study by Swedish researchers in 2001 found that 100 percent of calves raised in pens had some level of E. coli contamination, while those raised in pasture showed no signs of contamination at all.

So while the undersecretary of the USDA, supported by independent studies, sees a direct correlation between an animal's environment and the occurrence of E. coli contamination, Osterholm seems to think that changing the ways in which we raise and process our meat is "too easy." Instead of returning to more natural and sustainable agricultural practices and thereby cutting off the contamination at its source, he would have us subject all of our food to irradiation.

This is the sort of mentality that has succeeded in pushing us over the years toward a more industrial agricultural model. Rather than allowing us to rely upon family farmers and local processors, some people would have us continue to employ agricultural methods that have been responsible for the degradation of our environment as well as for the harmful effects to the health and well-being of our livestock and of ourselves.

The solutions to these problems are never simple, but unless we try to better understand their sources we will forever be chasing our proverbial tails.

Lenny Russo, St. Paul, is a chef and restaurateur.

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