Monday, 8 October 2012

When the Turkey is Gone

As we're giving thanks give a thought  to Canadian beef producers who are once more caught up in circumstances well beyond their control. In June of 2003 it was the discovery of one "mad cow" in Alberta that caused so much financial pain. The Americans shut down the border to Canadian cattle leading to huge surpluses of finsihed cattle on the Canadian side and depressed prices that have really just gotten back to being profitable. (I don't want to use the word normal).  Farmers lost tens of millions of dollars. This was a case of consumer risk caused by a handful of farmers who fed cattle with feed that had animal remains (that creates the prions seen in BSE in cattle, which in turn can cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans) Using animal by-products in feed is prohibited now but at one time suggested  by scientists as a way to make the industry more efficient.

This time it's  the slaughter plant (XL Foods in Alberta) that's created the risk to consumers. E-coli bacteria is part of the gut of all us animals. Cows have very specialized bacteria because their stomachs have to squeeze goodness out of grass (cellulose), something we humans can't do. It's one particular strain of e coli (0157:H7) in cows guts that can be deadly (it's what killed people in Walkerton Ontario when the town's water became contaminated), and it's what's making people sick right now.  Fortunately it looks like young, relatively healthy people have been exposed to the e coli by eating XL beef, so no one has died. It can kill the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Here's something  that's important/interesting. There was a time when food "know it alls" (and I've included myself in this group by times) were arguing that one of the huge benefits of grass-fed beef (see earlier posts) was that cattle did not produce 0157:H7. It turns out that's not true. This is from an article from a couple of years ago:

"This idea rose to the top of the journalistic food chain in the fall of 2006, when food activist Nina Planck wrote about the bacteria strain on the op-ed page of the New York Times. At that time, people were getting sick from bad organic spinach, but the contamination seemed to have originated with herds of conventionally raised cattle that lived upstream. Not every animal excretes this nasty type of E. coli, she argued. "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."
The Times speaks, the world listens. Planck's appraisal of grain- vs. grass-fed beef was highlighted on the Web sites for the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for a Livable Future, Grist, and, among other enviro-foodie venues. A few months later, Hannah Wallace of Salon warned that "a cow's corn diet can also make us sick" on account of the acidic environment it creates for bacteria. Even Michael Pollan, perhaps the most widely read food writer on the planet, explained in a New York Times Magazine piece, "The lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7 ... was unknown before 1982; it is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle." These animals, he added, "stand around in their manure all day long, eating a diet of grain that happens to turn a cow's rumen into an ideal habitat for E. coli 0157:H7."
For many consumers, the case was closed: To avoid E. coli O157:H7, just eat grass-fed beef.
Unfortunately, the scientific evidence tells a very different story."

More recent studies show that it's the location in the gut that appears to be more important to colonizing 0157:H7 than the gut's acidity, or exposure to grain. O well, it sounded good at the time, and again we learn that nothing's simple.

There is an inoculation against 0157:H7 developed by a UBC researcher, but using it is very expensive, and economics it seems always wins out.

The other caution are news stories that buying from small local beef producers is a way for consumers to protect themselves from this deadly strain of e coli. Now no one is  a greater proponent of buying local than me, and I would encourage everyone to do it, but this kind of contamination is an issue at the slaughter plant, not at the farm.  I'd like to think that at smaller beef [processors that a little more time and care can be taken to prevent contamination of meat. Sometimes the hides have manure on the outside and can allow e coli to come in contact with meat.  Sometimes using sharp knives and having to work very quickly in large plants the intestine can be pierced again leading to contamination of the meat. The best advice I had was being told that hamburger has meat from hundreds and hundreds of cattle, vastly increasing the chances of contamination (it's why hamburger is always the first product recalled in an e coli scare... what's making this latest incident more serious is that e coli has been found on solid cuts of beef as well) We now buy cheap roasts and make our own hamburger in a food processor. At least then you're dealing with just one cow. 

The XL story seems to be a long way from over. I only hope the only causalities are politicians and civil servants losing their jobs, not consumers who bought the beef in good faith, and will hopefully do that again in the future.

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