On January 22, 2010, the SLATE, an online daily magazine on the Web, published a wonderful article entitled "Beware the Myth of Grass-Fed Beef: Cows raised at pasture are not immune to deadly E. coli bacteria" By James E. McWilliams. People have been posting links to this article like crazy. There are hundreds of posts to Twitter and even NPR did a story on it. If you have not read the article, you should as it is well written and informative. But, in my opinion, the article is incomplete and does not tell the whole story when it comes to E. coli risks between typical grain fed beef and grass fed beef.
E. coli: Grass Fed Myth vs Reality
The SLATE E. coli article does a fantastic job of documenting the myth vs reality of E. coli O157:H7 colonization in Grass Fed cattle. E. coli O157:H7 is a particularly dangerous strain of E. coli that has been at the heart of so many ground beef recalls in recent years. The longstanding myth is that Grass Fed (aka Pasture Raised) Cattle are immune to E. coli O157:H7. Therefore, eating Grass Fed beef eliminates the risk of E. coli contamination.
The article points out that there have been at least a half-dozen studies that show that grass-fed cows do become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle. The article goes on to say that "the point in dredging up these studies—ones the media never covered—is not to play gotcha with advocates of grass-fed beef. (As mentioned above, grass-fed beef may be healthier than conventional beef over all, and kinder to the animals.) Instead, it's a warning that advocacy for a trendy food choice might result in a public health hazard."
The problems I have with this article are two fold. First, it does not tell the whole story of how beef becomes contaminated by E. coli. Secondly, people who are not more enlightened immediately conclude that if you eat grass fed beef, you are at equal risk of E. coli O157:H7 exposure as you are eating your typical industrial farmed beef. They immediately feel the need to slander the virtues of pasture raised beef and defend industrial farmed, grain fed beef. Well, I feel likeI need to tell the complete story so you can appropriately understand the E. coli risk differences between grain fed feedlot beef and local, pasture raised grass fed beef.
Local Grass Fed Beef Is Safer Than Feedlot Beef when it comes to E. coli
Risk of E. coli contamination is really a processing / butchering issue. E. coli contamination occurs when the meat comes into contact with E. coli contaminated feces. If the cattle are clean at the time of slaughter and the butcher is skilled, the chances of E. coli contamination can be greatly reduced. And when people talk about Grass Fed beef, they usually refer to pasture raised beef that is locally raised and locally butchered.
When local farmers take their cattle in for processing, the work is typically done by a skilled butcher in an immaculate processing facility. These buther's are more like artisans and they know how to cut the meat up and take great care to avoid contamination. The meat is ground on site and often frozen to maintain freshness. Contrast that with your typical package of ground beef you find in your local supermarket or burger you buy at a local restaurant (I'll discuss that further, keep reading).
Fact #1: Feedlot cattle are dirtier at time of slaughter than local, pasture raised beef, and therefore there is a higher risk of E. coli contamination.
Most of the beef in the United States come from large grain feeding operations called feedlots or factory farms. A cattle feedlot is crowded, filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads and choking air. There is no grass to be seen and the cattle stand and lie in their feces all day until it is caked on their bodies. And no matter how hard the meat processing facilities try (some much more than others) there is no getting all of that E. Coli contaminated fecal matter off of the hides of the cattle.
Fact #2: Most Grain Fed Beef Comes From High Speed Industrial Meat Processing Plants That Employ Unskilled Labor Making It Higher Risk of E. coli Contamination
Watch This Entertaining Clip From The Meatrix Animated Series
Most beef in the United States is produced by a handful of large, industrial processing plants where speed is the name of the game. The slaughtering and butchering of the meat is done assembly line style at high speeds. To make matters worse, the work is performed by cheap, unskilled labor. As documented in Fast Food Nation and Food Inc., meatpacking is some of the most dangerous work in America, but it pays 24% less than the average Factory job. The assembly goes by so quickly that the rushed slaughtering process sometimes leads to animals being processed while they are still alive. Fecal contamination of the meat is an inevitability when running lines at these speeds with unskilled labor.
Fact #3: Industrially Processed Ground Beef more closely resembles a Frankenburger
As documented in a recent NY Times Article titled "E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection," most ground beef you find in a typical grocery store or restaurant is not simply a chunk of meat that has been run through a grinder. Instead, it is what I like to call "frankenbeef" which consists of an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. Industry research shows that these low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces which carries E. coli.
In their research into Cargill's confidential grinding logs, the NY Times found that Cargill hamburgers were made from a mix of ingredients from multiple slaughterhouses including Nebraska, Texas, Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria. The article goes on to state that "Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen."
So next time you eat a burger made from grain fed feedlot beef, know that it may contain pieces of 1,000 different cows and probably a little serving of their manure.
The benefits of 100% pasture raised, grass fed beef are numerous, including the fact that if you consume it, you have a much lower risk of E. coli exposure than if you eat grain fed, industrially farmed beef. However, the reasons for the lower risk are not that the animal is naturally immune to E. coli colonization, but because the entire beef production chain for grass fed beef is typically cleaner.
I understand that it is human nature to cling to the status quo. Most people live in a state of oblivion when it comes to understanding where their beef comes from. It's understandable, because a great deal of effort has gone into hiding the realities behind factory farming practices. The images of happy cows growing up on pasture are an illusion. And people want to maintain those illusions because they couldn't live with themselves if they knew truth.
The truth can be hard to swallow (and potentially dangerous when it comes to industrial ground beef). People's natural reaction is to defend industrial farming practices as a necessity to feed a nation. That's how I rationalize how quickly people jumped on the bandwagon when the "Beware the Myth of Grass-Fed Beef" article came out.
But we all need to learn to stop, think and appropriately process what we read. The point of the SLATE article is Grass Fed Cows are not immune to E. Coli contamination. But the conlusion IS NOT that risk of E. Coli exposure is the same for local, grass fed beef as it is for industrially produced feedlot beef.
Grass fed beef is cleaner at the time of slaughter. It is usally processed in a small local meat processing operation by skilled butchers who are careful to avoid fecal contamination of the beef. When you buy grass fed ground beef from a reputable local farmer, you can be assured it is not "frankenbeef." In fact, the ground beef probably came from one cow. Rest assured, it was processed from quality, uncontaminated ingredients.
When you look back at your life, how will you judge your own actions? I know I want to look back at my life and feel like I tried to make a difference. I hope my actions show that I tried to fight for what's right. What's right to me is a return to sustainable farming practices that are healthier for the animal, the environment and the people. The consumer voice is a powerful tool and every purchase you make is a vote of approval. Make your voice heard, vote with your wallet and choose local Grass Fed Beef.