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Grass Fed Beef Still Has E. Coli Danger

The benefits of organic and grass fed beef have been well documented.Β  Numerous studies have shown that organic and grass fed beef has significantly higher levels of Omega 3s and lower levels of saturated fats than conventionally produced beef.Β  But recent studies have cast doubt on the long held wisdom that grass fed beef does not have significant E. Coli contamination issues.

Conventional food wisdom has stated that since it isn’t raised on a feedlot, grass fed beef is less susceptible to E. Coli contamination.Β  Food activists from local food pioneer Michael Pollan to The Organic Consumers Association are among the proponents who vouch for the nutritional and sustainable characteristics of grass fed beef over conventionally produced beef.

The most recent beef recall due to E. Coli contamination (in December, 2009 over 800,000 pounds of beef was recalled by Huntington Meat Packing Inc.) was caused by a particularly virulent strain of E. Coli – O157.H7.Β  The thinking is this strain evolved in the unnaturally acidic stomachs of feedlot cattle that are fed grain based diets, and then stand around in confined, crowded conditions in their own manure, which allows the bacteria to multiply so easily.Β  Grass fed cattle were presumed not to have a similar internal environment for this particular E. Coli strain since they consumed their natural diet of grass, hay and other natural forage.

A recent article though refutes the assumption that E. Coli contamination won’t happen in grass fed beef.Β  Studies have been performed in the past several years have noted that rates of E. Coli in grass fed beef are similar to feedlot cattle.Β  See studies here and here.

Though these studies have largely flown under the radar, it’s important to be aware of them and continue to treat grass fed beef safely – The FDA recommends cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees to kill any E. Coli that may be present.Β  If you’re not a meat eater, than you don’t have a thing to worry about.Β  But if you are a beef eater, it’s important to realize that the grass fed beef may not be the silver bullet to keep E. Coli at bay.

Image credit: FIR0002/flagstaffotos at Wikipedia under a GNU Free Documentation License.

8 comments
  1. Evz

    I don’t eat beef myself (of any type), but some of the people I care for do — thanks for writing about this issue. Besides feedlots, a lot of the sanitation problems seem to come from the slaughter houses/ meatpacking plants… the USDA/ FDA has been functionally emasculated over the last decade or so; they apparently have no real authority (or adequate staffing) to keep the poop (e.coli’s taxi) OUT of the meat in the first place, or to mandate efficient/ effective recalls once there’s a problem. It makes sense that grass-fed beef, though raised in more sanitary conditions, would have the same problems if it’s processed in the same (unsanitary) way.

    For related reading, check out http://www.ecovore.org/blog/?p=365 or http://www.ecovore.org/blog/?p=285… It makes me angry that we tolerate such high degrees of food contamination by fecal matter, so I find myself compelled to write about it periodically even though I don’t eat meat!… my SON eats that stuff, for pete’s sake: grass-fed or otherwise, Americans should be able to count on a non-lethal food supply, please & thank you!

    I also recommend Eric Schlosser’s book ‘Fast Food Nation’… it’s about so much more than fast food — contains a wealth of info about why there’s so much e.coli in US meat (more than ever before in our history).

    Anyhow- interesting post… Although definitely better than CAFO-produced meat in many ways (health/ ethics/ environment), ‘grass-fed’ clearly doesn’t necessarily translate to ‘problem-free’.

  2. Bill

    Your post is terribly misleading.

    For one, you don’t really go into the difference between feedlot conditions for millions of cattle and how they stand (and some times lay) in their own fecal matter and urine for months at a time. And how pasture raised animals forage away from their fecal droppings and if managed correctly, are herded from pasture to pasture almost completely removing the likelihood of E .coli contamination.

    It is also true the the actual contamination of meat products occur during the actual processing. When animals that have been reduced to living in their own waist for months are hurried through the slaughtering process in industrial sized slaughter houses. The likelihood of E .coli contamination increases exponentially under those conditions as compared to the methods of most small ranchers and their small processors dealing with, relatively speaking, ‘clean’ animals. In fact the conditions in many of the mega-feedlots have gotten so bad, processors have turned to spraying the carcasses with ammonia in an effort to counter the out of control E. coli outbreaks.

    And likewise, the studies you point to don’t really backup you claims either. For one, the acid-shock study required E. coli O157:H7 be introduced into the animal. Something extremely less likely to occur in pasture raised animals. It, as well, came to the conclusion that “generic coliforms from the rumen and rectum of hay-fed animals were more sensitive to an acid shock than coliforms from those GIT locations in grain-fed animals.” suggesting that the E. coli in the animals fed a more natural diet is susceptible to shock from the acids (and death) produced from such a diet.

    And finally I close with a quote from Temple Grandin, the famous autistic animal rights activist, who put it thus: “The mistake vegetarians make is that they confuse death with suffering.” A diet with the occasional meat entrΓ©e need not require greater risk to exposure to E. coli then that posed by a diet of organic vegetables with the growing/picking processes serving as possible means of E. coli contamination. Nor should such a diet be considered cruel in relation to how animals die if left up to nature – almost always by means of disease, starvation or predator take-down. The coexistence of humans and animals on the planet has always been a tenuous one at best given the speed in which our species has propagated and consumed both land and animal alike. But it has also been one in which we humans have had the capacity to care for a select few animals and assure they have a decent life prior to their death. Some of the trade off for that relationship and guardianship has been that some of the animals are sacrificed for our sustenance. We can either choose not to care for any animals and leave them to nature to thin and manage by ‘her’ cruel methods, or we can continue to evolve our give-and-take relationship with the various animals we benefit from and in which they likewise benefit. We can’t save animals from death, be we can assure they have a good life prior to it, and a quick painless one when in comes. As I’ve stated, human and animal both benefit from such a relationship.

  3. Susan

    I looked at the studies and find it hard to see how you arrived at your conclusion. The whole point about grass-fed being less likely to have e-coli is that it’s less likely to get contaminated by the pathogen to begin with, not that it’s more resistant to this acid-resistant version with which they inoculated the cattle. Thus, I see no point in the first study. The 2nd study did not specify that the cattle were grass-fed or grain-fed, so maybe there is more information regarding this that is not expressly stated. I didn’t see that it addressed the safety of grass-fed vs grain-fed at all. One of the main points about grass- vs. grain-fed is that the cattle on pasture are easier to clean, are less contaminated with manure, and so less prone to having e-coli contamination. To me this still seems like a valid argument, and seeing no argument that I think holds up in opposition, I still maintain that grass-fed is safer.

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