Factory farms, meat processing and E. coli

The XL Foods meat recall is highlighting the dangers of factory-farmed meat as well as giant processing plants.

Over the last month across Canada at least and probably in parts of the US, the daily news has been filled with the ever-expanding recall list of meat contaminated with E. Coli 0157 from the XL Foods meat-packing plant in Brooks, Alberta. Fifteen people have been sickened thus far.

This is the largest meat recall in Canadian history, affecting about half the meat production in the country. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended XL Foods’ license Sept. 27th, putting 2000 people out of work. (That is one HUGE plant!)

Just as Canadian cattle farmers were recovering from the mad cow disease scare in 2003, they are worried about the impact this E. coli scare may have on their bottom lines.

It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy to raise awareness in the general population of the real dangers posed by factory farms and giant agribusiness meat-packing plants, but there is a better way to preserve not only the jobs in the cattle industry, but also the health of consumers.

In my opinion there are two main issues that converged to create the E. Coli problem: 1) Factory Farms, and 2) Ridiculously gigantic meat-packing plants.

Factory farms are where most cattle are raised – they are kept inside standing in their own excrement for most of their lives, not seeing the light of day. These animals are not eating their natural diet of grass, but are fed pesticide-laden, probably GMO corn. Feeding corn (even if it were not GMO) to ruminant animals whose bodies are designed to eat grass makes the cattle very sick, raising E. Coli levels to dangerous levels.

Antibiotics are given to the animals in an effort to control illness, which we now know is one of the most important reasons we have antibiotic resistance in humans today.

Pastured cattle do not have high E. coli counts, as grass is the natural diet of a cow. Pastured animals do not need antibiotics, as they don’t tend to get sick.

Research has shown that if cattle ranchers were to stop the grain and replace with grass or hay for as little as 2 weeks prior to slaughter, E. coli counts would drop by 90%. Why is this not done? Because cows fatten up quickly on grain, and feeding hay would reduce the weight of the animal, reducing the price fetched.

This summer I read about a farmer who actually began feeding his cattle gummy worms because the price of grain was so high due to the drought. He found his animals fattened up really well – yes, a diet of gummy bears would definitely be as fattening to cattle as to humans, but also as bad for the health of the cattle as they would to humans. Can you imagine how high those E. Coli counts would be? Eating sick animals is not going to make us healthy.

Even if the cattle are grass-fed, if they are slaughtered in a huge plant alongside all the factory-farmed cattle, there is no way to assure that their meat won’t be contaminated too.

From the stories that have recently come out of the XL Foods plant, it seems that the problems are mirroring what Eric Schlosser wrote about in his book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.

The animals are being slaughtered at such a fast rate that the workers can’t hose down the carcasses fast enough to remove the poop. Therefore it isn’t hard for the poop to get into the meat. Yes, absolutely disgusting.

There are fewer CFIA inspectors on the floor of the plant due to government cut backs, so lapses in food safety are more likely to occur. A company as huge as XL Foods is unlikely to go under if there is a problem, so safety might take a back seat to profit.

The best way to ensure that the animal foods we eat are safe, is to opt out of the big agribusiness food-system completely. Small farms and small slaughter houses have to be much more invested in food safety, because if something happens they are done. Out of business.

It is encouraging how this E. Coli scare has woken many people up. Farms that sell grass-fed beef and bison are finding their businesses have increased dramatically in the last month. Hopefully more farmers will switch their operations to take advantage of a growing trend.

People are getting together with friends and splitting the cost of the meat of a whole cow, or half a cow from a local farmer that raises the animals on grass. This is not only economical for the consumer, but also supports local farmers and local economies, encourages happy, healthy cows that get to spend their life outside doing what cows do best, does not promote antibiotic resistance, is much more environmentally friendly as there are no “poop ponds” that leach into waterways, and is more likely to result in safe, delicious meat.

In my opinion, “organic” is not important when it comes to meat. A cow gets just as sick on “organic” grain. The land the cow grazes on does not need to be certified organic. It is unlikely that a farmer is going to spray the grass. So spend the money on grass-fed / pastured and hormone-free, but don’t bother springing for organic meat.

If you want to search for other posts by title or by topic, go to www.wellnesstips.ca.

If you would like to get clarity on how to eat healthy, take my online nutrition course.

Related tips
Industrial agriculture – what is the cost of cheap food?
Conventional vs Organic vs Pastured meat, chicken, eggs and dairy
Bacteria, our immune system, and food-borne illness
In defense of real meat

CFIA investigation into XL Foods (E. coli O157:H7) Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 2012.

XL Foods – List of Recalled Products Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 2012.

Pollan, Michael The
Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Penguin Press, New York, 2006

Gonzalez F. et al.Grain feeding and the Dissemination of Acid-Resistant Escherichia coli from Cattle Science Washington, Sept. 11, 1998, Vol. 281, Iss. 5383: p. 1666-69. (A study
that shows the difference in e-coli levels between grass and grain fed
cattle.)

Scott, Julia Is Buying A Side Of Beef Worth It—Or Just Plain Crazy? Business Insider May 2012.

Copyright 2012 Vreni Gurd

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1 Comment »

  1. Liz said,

    October 18, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    How readily available are smaller rendering plants? My understanding, though I haven’t been as up on the topic lately, is that many smaller operations have been shut down by the government, forcing farmers to ship animals out of their immediate region for processing (a.k.a. slaughter).

    While it may save on wages for a few more plant inspectors, this move reduces farmers’ profit, making small scale farming less viable so fewer will be able to do it and make a living.

    It also brings animals raised in healthy conditions into contact with animals not raised in healthy conditions increasing the risk of contamination.

    I’m all for being able to buy meat – including chicken, lamb, beef and pork – from farmers you know, but with the current regulations, I’m not sure that’s even possible.

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