E. coli, XL Foods, Meat Production and Human Health

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.

E. coli XL Foods

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.

E. coli XL Foods

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!

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  1. I have been trying to vote with my dollars for long time now, and it is not easy (and I’m very far from 100% ethical even with just food). And I see major obstacle for more people doing it is simply – price. E. coli outbreaks come and go, but simple fact that people are accustomed to by pork tenderloin for 4 bucks a pound makes “ethical” prices seem like coming out of Jupiter. I am privileged that I can make that choice, but most people are not. Unless we invent “tax” on unethical, this is never going to be leveled field. Not to get into debate how such “tax” will be perceived as free-market-strangling government-meddling monstrosity.
    I remember how some of the changes to strengthen laws for meat hygiene (after Maple Leafs listeria issue) actually hurt small local farmers the most. Because laws are sweeping in their ask to have food processing plant to certain standards, local farmer that was producing Roe Ham (raw cured ham) could not produce it anymore – it was against the law NOT to soak the raw meat with chemicals to kill bacteria. Talk about moving away from safe (1000 years practiced) into unknown and forcing consumers into one choice only.

    • I agree that there is a lot of privilege tied up into the question of what you pay for food. I’ve written about that before, and what I came around to is this: if I have the privilege to choose, then I will exercise it. Hopefully, as more people exercise it, then economies of scale can start to kick in and more ethical food will be more widely available and more affordable.

      As for taxes and oversight, I agree it’s complicated. At the moment, we heavily subsidize and incentivize food production, and especially certain types of food production. I’m sure we could do that in a more reasonable way to encourage more ethical and sustainable practices, but we want to avoid the unintended consequences you cite. So for now I’m focusing on my own family and what we eat.

  2. Like yourself Amber, for years I have been buying the meat that I eat from local farmers in my area. The meat is processed at a small plant not too far from where we live. Fortunately, I live in the middle of cattle country and have an abundance of choice when it comes to finding wonderful, grass fed cattle. I have also raised and slaughtered my own chickens and turkey’s over the years. It is very comforting knowing that the food I put on my table comes from my neighbours.
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  3. Oh my gosh! This is the first I am hearing about the recall. It makes me sad to hear of children and families getting sick from their food. Health is so important. When I used to eat meat I would spend more to get organic grass fed because I felt it was worth the extra money. Every dollar is truly a vote for what we want in the future. I hope you have a beautiful weekend, Amber!

  4. We did get a half side of organic grass-fed beef once, and it was great. Then we stopped, because the same farm wasn’t offering it and we were too lazy to figure out where else to go. I just told my husband I want to do it again, but I am, admittedly, lamentably inconsistent when it comes to this stuff.
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  1. […] love the idea of voting with my dollars when I’m buying food, or anything else. But this is more like voting with my behaviour. I’m changing my identity, […]

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