October 11, 2012
The largest recall of Canadian beef is taking place, and the information being lobbed at consumers is contradictory and confusing.
While the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recalls more than 1,800 beef products, the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) and Alberta Premier Alison Redford are telling the public that Alberta’s beef is still safe to eat. On their website, ABP reminds consumers that E. coli 0157:H7 can be present in a wide range of foods, including raw meat, poultry, vegetables, etc.
However, they neglect to point out that whether it ends up on a steak or a bean sprout, E. coli 0157:H7 most likely originated from beef or dairy cattle feces.
This strain of E. coli was first discovered in 1975 and identified as infectious to humans in the 1980s, coinciding with the growing practice of moving cattle into large feedlots for “finishing.” Here the animals are confined, often knee-deep in manure, until they reach an ideal weight, typically at 12 to 24 months of age. By comparison, 75 years ago, cattle took four or five years to grow to slaughter weight.
There is evidence that this particular strain of E. coli is a result of feeding cattle a finishing diet of grain (usually corn, which makes the cow grow faster) instead of forage (a more natural diet for bovines). Studies have shown that approximately 50% of feedlot cattle harbour E. coli O157:H7, and during summer months it can be as high as 80%.
The digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow changes from neutral to acidic by the change from forage to grain, and this creates the ideal environment for the development of E. coli O157:H7, which can survive in human stomachs and go on to sicken and kill us. Asymptomatic in cattle, it doesn’t cause infections; but in humans, it can be devastating. The very young and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. It is passed from animals to humans, but also from humans to humans.
The bacteria enter the environment when they are shed in manure by beef or dairy animals, and spreads environmentally from the use of infected manure on crops or from leakage of manure or lagoon water into streams or ditches, as happened in the Walkerton, Ont., tragedy 12 years ago.
The present crisis, of course, is from meat contaminated by feces at the slaughterhouse. (Some cows have 30 pounds of mud and feces on their hides, according to media reports.) Ground beef is a particular problem because meat from hundreds of cows is ground up together — spreading any contamination to the entire batch.
So what now? Author Michael Pollan offers an answer in his bestselling book In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And perhaps now is a good time to re-examine Pollan’s reasons for issuing that simple, but meaty, statement.
Global meat production has more than doubled since 1970, and is projected to double again by 2050. The dramatic rise in the demand for meat is driving a worldwide expansion of factory farming that is causing health, environmental and animal welfare problems. There is strong evidence that red and processed meat consumption causes bowel cancer, and meat has been associated with obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Using grains to feed livestock has helped create shortages of wheat, soybeans and corn, raising prices beyond the reach of poor people in developing countries. Livestock production is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions — a higher share than transportation. Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy as does production of plant protein.
In Canada, 665 million animals are slaughtered every year. Everywhere are giant barns crowded with pigs and chickens, and feedlots crammed with cattle. Intensive confinement deprives these animals of any opportunity for natural behaviour. If pets were treated as food animals are, there would be a public outcry. But because they’re eaten, it’s only a whisper.
Perhaps it’s time to cut down or cut out our consumption of a product that we must treat like toxic waste in order to consume it. We can address all these problems by becoming vegetarian or vegan — but even substantially reducing meat consumption will make a real difference.
Debra Probert is executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society.