Whoever thought that agriculture of all things, would be referred to as “Big Ag”, spoken in a scathing tone of voice? And the farmers….cruel, money hungry scoundrels that are surely the ones responsible for E.coli outbreaks and people becoming ill. I mean, if they didn’t feed their cattle such a horrible diet, then undoubtedly the problem would resolve itself. Consider this quote regarding E.coli in beef:
"It's not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new—that is, recent in the history of animal diets—biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms." –Nina Planck, New York Times
Well there you have it. If it’s in the New York Times, it must be true. Unfortunately this is just one example of a widespread problem of information that is, partially or entirely, incorrect being communicated to the public. Let’s consider 5 common misunderstandings regarding E.coli that were discussed at a 2009 luncheon by Washington State University’s Veterinary Medicine Extension:
1. "Cattle farmers are responsible for the E coli O157:H7 problem"
2. "Feeding cattle grass or grass hay reduces E coli O57:H7 shedding in cattle"
3. "Meatpacking plants are responsible for the E coli O157:H7 problem"
4. "Consumers are responsible for the E coli O157:H7 problem"
5. "Public health agencies are responsible for the E coli O157:H7 problem"
Each of these misunderstandings can be explained and/or debunked. The first thing that needs to be understood about this bacteria is the difference between generic E.coli and the 0157:H7 strain. Generic E.coli is found naturally in the G.I. tract of many living creatures, including humans and animals. It lives and grows there harmlessly and is shed in feces. There are hundreds of strains of E.coli and many of them have no effect on humans but may be a risk to certain animals. E.coli 0157:H7 is one particular strain that is causes toxicity in humans and was responsible for the Jack in the Box outbreak in the early 90’s, thus the reason it is so well known. Of course, the average consumer is completely unaware of the distinction between 0157:H7 and other strains or even that multiple strains exist. But let’s return to our myths.
1. This probably began and picked up momentum from a tiny, incomplete study (3 cows) done by Cornell University, which was then extrapolated to the entire industry. Unfortunately, it was done a by a credible university and without looking into the details, it provides fuel to the fire for reporters looking for culprits to blame in the event of an E.coli outbreak.
2. After 15 years of studies, there is no consistent evidence supporting the statement that grain-fed cattle shed higher amounts of E.coli 0157:H7 than grass or hay fed cattle. Most of the studies indicate they are about the same.
3. No they are not but there is some criticism of the meat processing system that is legitimate. Ground beef is the most likely culprit here. The whole basis of ground beef is that it’s an inexpensive meat. It’s made in very large batches, with the scraps and cheap cuts of meat from many, many animals. This increases risk of contamination due to the sheer number of animals being used and the increased surface area that could be exposed to bacteria. Additionally, testing for E.coli 0157:H7 is complicated by the massive amount of product. Random samples collected from these super batches of ground beef may test negative but that does not guarantee the entire batch is negative.
4. Consumers are cooking the meat they purchase in their kitchens or on the grill, not in a sterile lab using aseptic technique. So if E.coli 0157:H7 is present, there is a high likelihood of contamination. Meat packaging does not necessarily lend itself to aseptic removal from the package and on to the cooking surface. That being said, one way in which consumers share some responsibility is in the absolute public rejection of gamma radiation of meat to eliminate bacterial organisms. This is an FDA approved method, analogous to pasteurization of milk, but the perception of it has been soundly rejected.
5. Public health agencies are simply responsible for detection and reporting. If they fail in these responsibilities, then they’ll be accused of being remiss in their duty or worse, trying to conduct a “cover-up”. To try and hold them responsible for the presence of E.coli 0157:H7 is ludicrous.
The United States has some of the best food safety in the world. But there are a huge number of people and variables involved in producing and processing enough food to meet demands. So the next time there is the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of accusations against conventional farmers, please take the time to do some research first.