E. coli beef recall update raises more concerns about food safety

long-haired cattleHere's the latest word on the E. coli O157:H7 recall I blogged about earlier. The USDA has categorized this recall as a "Class 1" event, indicating a "high health risk," according to the Washington Post. The tainted beef recall has encompassed 16 states and has poisoned 21 people so far -- several of them having to be hospitalized with the usual nasty symptoms.

On Christmas Eve, National Steak and Poultry, out of Oklahoma, initiated a recall of 248,000 lbs. of steaks that had been distributed to Midwestern chain restaurants including Moe's and Carino's Italian Grill. If you celebrated the holidays with beefy Italian food or Mexican burritos and you're not feeling so well, this might be why.

The USDA reports that the steaks had been mechanically tenderized using a process whereby hundreds of needles are used to poke holes in the meat. This forces bacteria like E. coli to travel deep into the meat where any cooking (shy of well-done) won't adequately kill the poison.

Consequently, officials are calling for warning labels on beef that's been mechanically tenderized. Of course this only addresses the symptom, not the cure.

Eliminating E. coli O157:H7 entirely is what really needs to happen. And the most common sense approach is to require that all cattle be fed grass or hay instead of grain and corn products. Cattle aren't designed to digest grain, so the epigastric pH levels and acids from a grain diet allow E. coli bacteria to thrive in the cow's gut. Switch to grass and the problem is solved.

I've received a few e-mails this week voicing concern about the cost of grass-fed or organically raised meats. To put things into perspective, I touched base with my friend Robyn O'Brien, the author of The Unhealthy Truth, and she explained that the externalized costs associated with grain-fed cattle far outweigh the immediate per-pound cost of grass-fed beef.

Let's do the list. The health risks from grain-fed beef, the multiple recalls, the antibiotics, the fuel costs associated with transporting and processing grain, and the new E. coli vaccine being developed for cattle, which will cost around $7 per injection -- all of these factors should be taken into consideration. What side effects from the vaccine will we discover in humans down the road? What will those side effects cost in terms of our health care system?

O'Brien also noted the health benefits associated with eating grass-fed beef over grain-fed:

  1. Lower in total fat
  2. Higher in beta-carotene
  3. Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
  4. Higher in the B vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
  5. Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
  6. Higher in total omega-3s
  7. A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84)
  8. Higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11), a potential cancer fighter
  9. Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)
  10. Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease
So while in some cases it might cost a few more cents per pound to buy locally grown grass-fed meat, the long term damage from buying grain-fed beef might be much more expensive.

But in America, we tend to treat the symptoms and not the root cause -- in both humans and cattle. O'Brien reminded me that a UK study concluded that artificial food coloring contributed to childhood hyperactivity, so Kraft, Coca Cola and Walmart removed these ingredients from any food distributed in the UK. In the United States, however, we just pump our kids with more drugs to treat the hyperactivity and the artificial coloring remains. We're smart.

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