When it comes to food safety, the recent beef scare has given BC residents a lot to chew on. In September 2012, many beef products handled by XL Foods of Brooks, Alberta, were recalled. Beef from the plant has tested positive for E. coli O157: H7 bacteria, a micro-organism that remains a major health concern within North America, with roughly 100,000 cases of human infection reported yearly.
The trouble stems from a toxin produced by E. coli that can enter an individual's circulatory system at a damaged part of the intestinal lining. This can lead to Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUC), which causes kidney failure. Though this strain of E. coli can contaminate spinach, alfalfa and bean sprouts, to name a few, it can often be found in infected beef.
According to some people in the agricultural industry, beef has become a susceptible to E.coli infection in large part due to the diet of cattle.
“E. coli O157 is a product of our modern beef industry,” said Harold Steves, owner of Steveston Stock and Seed Farm. “Cattle are fed heavy amounts of grain to fatten them up.” Steves went on to explain that grain feeding changes the acidity in cattle's rumen. Normally the rumen has relatively neutral pH, but the grain creates a very acidic environment and E. coli, which is normally present, becomes resistant to the acidity. The problem is complicated by the fact that E. coli O157 does not make cattle sick; thus when the cattle subsequently gets slaughtered the infection spreads unnoticed very quickly.
Some ranchers, like Steves, are choosing to feed their cattle a grass based diet under the argument that grass fed cattle don't readily develop the infection.
“If you are raising grass fed beef there is an 80% less chance of having E. coli O157. If the plant is only geared to slaughtering grass fed beef then the chances of E. coli entering the plant is basically nil,” noted Steves.
The slaughtering process is complicated procedure in BC as much of the cattle are exported to Alberta where they are often grain fed in stockyards prior to processing. Rules restricting the slaughtering and processing of meat in BC to larger operations were implemented after a mad cow scare in 2004. However the need to bring operations back to BC is noted by the BC Ministry of Agriculture which is currently reviewing meat regulations to allow smaller operations to slaughter, process and sell their own meat.
“I know there is a burning desire in parts of the province to see closer-to-home meat processing,” commented Norm Letnick, BC's new Minister of Agriculture.
With that said, healthy slaughtering and processing operations are only one part of the solution. Ideally infected cattle should never make its way to a plant. Healthy cattle is the other part of the solution, and for one BC researcher the health of cattle includes vaccination. Dr. B. Brett Finlay, a biochemist at UBC's Michael Smith Laboratories, developed a vaccine to treat E. coli O157 infections in cattle.
The Econiche vaccine, developed by Bioniche Life Sciences Inc., is the world’s first licensed vaccine used in healthy cattle to aid in the reduction of shedding of the bacteria into the environment. Although the vaccine is successful at reducing infections it has not been widely adapted by ranchers or beef processors.
“I think it irresponsible that there is a commercialized—first in Canada— solution out there that is not being used, and it breaks my heart to see this outbreak and resultant illness associated with what should be a preventable disease,” said Dr. Finlay. “The other problem is that there is no medical intervention that works, as antibiotics worsen the disease, so prevention is so critical.”
With so much at stake, it begs the question of why the vaccine is not routinely used. The answer is a financial one; it costs $6/cow for a vaccination and with many ranchers rearing hundreds, if not thousands, of cattle the cost can quickly add up.
“There needs to be some way to help ease the cost, to subsidize it,” said Dr. Finlay. “ The vast majority of farmers are in favour of the vaccine if it didn't cost them. This would include government, feed lots, farmers, and consumers. It would cost $50 million to vaccinate all cows in Canada, yet we already spend $250 million a year on health care costs for O157, not counting all the beef issues, and it would make meat safe from O157.”
In contrast to Steves grass-fed solution, Dr. Finlay is not convinced that diet is the answer. “The studies I have read said this does not work,” he said. “There was one study that indicated that it might work, but many followups said it doesn't work. We know all ruminants can carry it, including deer, goats and sheep. Grass fed does not prevent it.”
The recent outbreak has had a largely negative impact on the beef industry throughout Canada but for farms sticking to grass fed cattle business looks good.Whether or not grass-fed cattle are at a lower risk of E. coli O157 is still up for debate, however in the wake of the XL scandal, other slaughter houses are playing it safe.
“Because many people are aware grass fed beef can be free of E. coli O157, people who would normally buy grain fed are coming to us,” noted Steves, adding that he has received so many orders in the last few weeks that he is sold out until January.
While they seem to pose has a higher risk of infection, the industry standard remains grain fed cattle. These cattle are bigger, yield more meat, and as such are more capable satiating market demands for beef. The recent outbreak though may bring into question these standards if public perception finds that profits are being placed ahead of human safety.