Here in Canada, it feels like we’ve been talking about nothing but the XL Foods beef recall for weeks. If you’re not familiar with it, though, I’m going to give a brief synopsis. More than a month ago, E. coli was detected in beef from the XL Foods processing plant in Alberta, one of the three largest such plants in Canada. However, for a variety of reasons a full-scale recall was not immediately launched. Then people started getting sick, and not just from hamburger and sausage, which are usually associated with E. coli, but from whole cuts of beef. The plant was shut down temporarily, the recall just kept expanding, and the company didn’t respond as well as they should have to the situation.
I have read a number of books that discuss industrial meat production, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation. What I learned in these books is that while E. coli is present in the guts of many mammals, including humans, not every strain is the same. The strain that can make people sick, and even cause death, is E. coli O157:H7. This is the strain that was found in beef from XL Foods. Research has found that this strain is far more common in grain-fed cows than grass-fed cows. In fact, it’s four times more common in grain-fed cows. And, at present, most beef cattle are fed corn, which is a grain. The Straight Dope says 90% of beef is grain-finished. This is because they gain weight faster, which means that it takes less time to prepare them for slaughter.
Another major factor in the spread of E. coli is cleanliness. This bacteria is present in the intestine, which means it’s also present in cow poop. One of the ways that we can reduce its spread is to ensure proper handling at the processing plant. In general, when meat is contaminated with E. coli it means that it’s come in contact with cow feces. Think of it like cross-contamination in your kitchen – you want to keep the salad away from the raw meat, so that your lettuce doesn’t come in contact with any nasty bacteria. In the same way, in a processing plant, they want to keep the parts of a cow that may be infected with E. coli away from the parts of a cow that you will be eating. When they don’t, then E. coli spreads. This is more likely to happen when you have a massive operation processing large number of cows at high speed.
I get my own beef from a rancher named Barrie Redl who comes to my farmers’ market. His cattle are completely grass-fed. They graze on the open range in the summer, they’re pastured in the fall and they’re fed hay in the winter. They are processed at a small plant, located near the ranch. I’ve been buying meat from the Redls for years. I remember when their granddaughter was born, they know my kids, and I have confidence in what I’m buying from them. While I know that I must still follow safe meat handling procedures, I also know that the likelihood of an E. coli outbreak from grass-fed beef processed in small batches is far lower. It’s true that I pay more, but in my mind it’s worth it because I know that the cows have been treated well. When they’re healthier, it’s healthier for me. And last weekend, in the midst of the news from XL Foods, they sold out quickly.
I won’t pretend that I only eat ethically-sourced, grass-fed beef. When I go out to restaurants, for instance, I have no idea where that beef is coming from. But in situations where I have direct control, I think it’s important to ask questions about what I’m buying. E. coli outbreaks, the use of pink slime, the inhumane treatment of animals and so on flourish because we’re not aware. These are not the images that businesses like XL Foods want us to have in our heads when we’re in the grocery store aisle. But once we know, we can make informed choices and vote with our dollars when we buy food. Maybe we’ll be eating less meat because it’s more expensive, but we’ll be able to feel good about what we do eat. This is good for us, it’s good for the animals we’re consuming, and it’s good for the planet.
Has the latest beef recall caused you to re-examine your own meat consumption? Would you be willing to pay more for meat if you knew that it was less likely to be contaminated with E. coli? I’d love to hear your thoughts!