An excellent op-ed by Nina Plank on ways to reduce the amount of dangerous E. coli in our food supply. The answer is stupendously simple: feed cattle what they were meant to eat.
E. coli O157:H7 [the strain responsible for the latest outbreak] is not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms.
In 2003, The Journal of Dairy Science noted that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry O157. (Fortunately, food safety measures prevent contaminated fecal matter from getting into most of our food most of the time.) Happily, the journal also provided a remedy based on a simple experiment. When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.
Plus, grass fed beef just tastes better.
Update: Tara Smith, who has forgotten more about E. coli than I’ll ever know, makes an informed comment:
Not that simple. That’s one study-others have found that feeding a corn diet actually decreased O157 survival compared to barley (J Food Prot. 2000 63:1467-74), or that when a long-term diet of hay was fed (greater than a month), the cattle still shed O157 (Appl Environ Microbiol. 2005 71:7974-9.) Another one found diet had no effect on O157 (J Anim Sci. 2006 84:2523-32). If anything’s clear, it’s that the link between diet and shedding of O157 *isn’t* clear, despite what Plank claims.