Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kill E. coli: Cook beef properly

We're all responsible for ensuring food safety

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There is something surreal about public health officials telling you to go to your freezer and throw away any beef of unknown origin, just to be safe.

Or to be confronted with bold-face notices at the meat counter assuring customers the retailer has disposed of all of the packages of beef it was selling to you only yesterday, just to be safe.

The XL beef debacle, which has prompted the largest E. coli-related meat recall in Canadian history, should be prompting some soul-searching about whether we take public safety seriously, or whether we are simply paying it lip service.

The "when in doubt, throw it out" approach doesn't inspire much confidence, especially when it involves two million kilograms of beef, which is the equivalent of 6,000 to 7,000 animals whose lives have now been wasted.

It leaves the impression our food-safety system is at any given time barely one step ahead of these ever-evolving organisms that can turn good food into poison.

Yes, 15 people have fallen ill and that's a bad thing. But using the same logic, we should pull all cars off the road every time a passenger gets injured.

The truth is, we know a lot about E. coli. We also know a lot about how to prevent contamination from occurring, and if it does, preventing it from making us sick. Humans are delicate carnivores; we generally fare better when our meat is cooked.

Yet these outbreaks continue to surprise. There are three possible explanations. Collectively we are stubborn, stupid or selfish -- none of which bodes well for our survival as a species.

In spite of the company's own monitoring and the dozens of Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors on-site, the plant's ability to control E. coli was reportedly overwhelmed by a large number of cattle carrying the bacteria entering the slaughterhouse.

Why? Because we live in a fast-food culture.

Studies have shown E. coli contamination tends to be higher in grain-fed than in grass-fed beef. Cattle were born with four stomachs, which makes them remarkably efficient at converting grass into energy humans can use. Feeding grain to cattle speeds up that conversion, but it also makes the animal's gut conducive to E. coli.

Approximately 30 per cent of feedlot cattle shed the organism in their poop. USDA researchers determined switching cattle from grain to forage resulted in a 1,000-fold decline in E. coli populations within five days. The surviving E. coli had a reduced ability to survive the acids found in human stomachs.

However, the cattle-finishing industry continues to feed a high-starch diet, while keeping animals in close quarters standing in their own manure because it's more efficient.

Here's a reality check: A food value chain that maximizes feed, production and processing efficiency at the expense of the customer isn't really all that efficient.

OK, so an enterprising company called Bioniche developed a vaccine for cattle that reduces E. coli's ability to colonize the bovine's gut. The vaccine, Econiche, has been fully licensed for the Canadian market for four years.

At $3 per dose, and in some cases it must be administered twice, the company estimates it would cost $50 million to vaccinate Canada's 12.5 million cattle. A national vaccination program would reduce E. coli contamination in cattle by up to two-thirds.

Yet it is used on less than five per cent of Canadian cattle. E. coli doesn't make cattle sick, and feedlot operators don't pay more for cattle that have been vaccinated, so why should primary producers incur a cost for which there is no payback?

There is another technology available that effectively kills E. coli along with a host of other harmful organisms. The problem is some schmuck named it "irradiation," even though it involves no radioactive contact. Fearing a backlash over "nuked" food, no meat company has dared use it.

Finally, how is it that in Canada, one of the world's wealthiest and most well-educated countries, we have a population so functionally illiterate when it comes to safe food preparation? Even meat carrying E. coli is edible when properly cooked.

We consider reading, writing and arithmetic to be basic survival skills, but teaching people how to safely feed themselves and others is an optional afterthought. Those kids hired to pass hamburgers out the drive-through window may know the rules, but do they know the reason?

Canadians are kidding themselves if they think bringing in new management, new rules and more inspectors at XL Foods will eliminate E. coli-related illnesses.

The problem belongs to all of us; we are all part of the problem.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email at laura@fbcpublishing.com .

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 B6

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