Has the ethanol boom led to the rash of E. coli-contaminated beef recalls?
It's possible. Here's how:
The demand for ethanol, the fuel additive and purported gas substitute, has been higher than ever because Congress started requiring a higher percentage of ethanol in the nation's fuel supply. As has been well documented, the increased corn production has enriched chemical fertilizer and pesticide companies, increased agricultural runoff has fed a near-record dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and the diversion of corn from food and feed to fuel has contributed to a worldwide run-up in food commodity prices. (These are only the start to corn-based ethanol's problems; if we planted all U.S. cropland in corn, it would still only supply about 20% of our demand, and require so much fossil fuel fertilizer that we'd still be contributing nearly as much to global warming and importing loads of energy.)
The high price of corn has also made it hard on conventional — if that's the right word — beef ranchers, who have for decades converted cheap corn into profits by feeding it to cows on crowded feed lots.
It's already been reported that some ranchers have turned to the waste from ethanol plants to feed their cows, and that the switch makes the cows produce even more E. coli bacteria — the kind that's harmless to cows, but which can and frequently has contaminated the meat supply for humans. Dozens have been made ill from eating beef produced at plants "processing" — that is, assembly line-style slaughtering — these cows.
What's also true is that E. coli only showed up so prolifically in the guts of cows since they've been fed corn in the last 50 years or so. A starchy food the grass-eaters didn't evolve to consume, corn produces an acidic mess in their stomachs that E. coli bacteria apparently loves. But corn has been made cheap by federal policy, and it can be used — often along with artificial hormones — to make cows grow faster and fatter. As Georgian grass-fed beef rancher Will Harris put it, "The best way to sell seven pounds of corn was to sell one pound of beef." (Of course, as Harris knows, all that rapid growth on an unnatural diet in such close proximity to other cows makes it necessary to treat them with antibiotics to prevent other disease outbreaks, which like E. coli would be rare if the animals weren't raised this way.)
Without cheap corn, the economic model for beef ranchers is broken. And there's only so much waste from ethanol plants to go around. Fortunately for these ranchers, there's waste from other sources — namely, any nearby food processing plant. As a Wall Street Journal video recently demonstrated (thanks to Tom Philpott at Grist for bringing it to my attention), some ranchers are feeding their cows potato chips and chocolate. Actually, that's too generous: the cows are eating waste — the potato chip and chocolate waste not fit for the junk food aisle at the grocery store.
"I don't know of any research yet on the impacts of feeding cows potato chips, but it sure isn't what they are built to eat," Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group, wrote in an e-mail.
"And it opens up the whole topic of how little research there really is on the food safety impacts of what cattle are fed. Basically, land grant universities that do most of the research on livestock issues are not very likely to criticize (or even fully examine) 'modern' or more 'efficient' techniques of raising cattle, especially what they are fed."
What research is out there is suggestive. A 1998 USDA and Cornell University study showed that feeding cows grass right before slaughter decreased the E. coli counts in their guts, and would make human infections less likely. (Lovera said the research was "basically shut down after the industry protested it.") A study just this spring showed that E. coli counts were twice as high in the hindguts of cows fed distiller's grains (ethanol waste) as those fed a "traditional" corn diet.
What about potato chips and chocolate?
The short answer is that there is no evidence it wreaks havoc on cows and breeds E. coli. (I've reached out to other experts on this question, and will update this thread if I learn more.) It could be the rash of beef recalls has more to do with slaughterhouses "processing" more cows more quickly (and, the accusation goes, more sloppily) to increase their margins through volume, because the profit per cow is down due to the high cost of grain.
But, as the premise of the movie King Corn taught us, we are what we eat. If cows are fed mostly corn, and we eat a lot of beef, the carbon in corn becomes a part of us. Now, Americans may be made up more of junk food even than corn.
"If corn is high carbohydrate — and relative to grass, it is — what about potato chips and chocolate?" Will Harris, the Georgia grass-fed beef rancher and beef director for the American Grassfed Association, said. "That's real high carbohydrate, isn't it? Do those kinds of practices cause beef to be less safe or less healthy or less humane or less environmentally sustainable? Well? Intuitively, you might think so. I leave it to the scientists to find out."
He added: "What I believe is that any species of animal does best when it eats what it evolved to eat."
He was talking about cows. It makes sense for us, as well.