The Whole Cow—Part 1

Written by Lydia Benedict.

Chances are you're going to barbeque this weekend. Before you do, read this.

With thousands sickened by an E.coli outbreak in Germany, food poisoning is on our minds. And it should be. Certain strains of E.coli can kill. This latest European outbreak has taken 48 lives and hundreds of others have suffered complications that can lead to kidney failure. I recently had the opportunity to meet Stephanie Smith , a young dancer who had everything to look forward to. That is –until one day when she ate an E.coli contaminated hamburger. That was nearly four years ago. Now she is 24 and confined to a wheelchair. She also sustained a brain injury and her speech is compromised. To go from walking, talking and dancing to wheelchair confinement and an inability to carry on a normal conversation as a result of something she ate is unfathomable. Yet it happens.

I had been under the misconception that by simply feeding a cow its natural diet of grass, it would eliminate E.coli. But it isn't quite that simple. A pastured cow can still harbor E.coli 0157:H7 and other deadly strains. Still, a grass-fed cow compared to its unfortunate feedlot counterpart is drastically safer and healthier. Put simply, a feed lot cow is more likely to be sick because it is eating an unnatural diet of corn in an unnatural setting—a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

In CAFOs, there is no grass and sometimes even a shortage of sunshine depending on how "cooped up" the cows are kept. These conditions lead to a lack of Vitamin A and D in the animals, further weakening the animal and leading to unfavorable changes in the intestinal flora. In fact, if the CAFO cows didn't go to slaughter when they do—they would die anyway. This also explains why 70% of the antibiotics in this country are fed to livestock. That's to keep the animals from succumbing to the diseases that runs rampant in an environment where cows are forced to stand shoulder to shoulder in pens with manure up to their bellies.

CAFO Cows in ManureCAFO Cows in Manure

Then take those same sick cows to a slaughter house where literally hundreds of cows are processed daily. The chance of mistakes increase. This is particularly true when it comes to ground beef. Remember that ground beef comes from the least desirable part of the cow—its hind quarters. And a cow's backside can easily come in contact with its feces. If the ground meat of hundreds of cows is then mixed in one big vat—and it is—then one contaminated carcass can quickly affect hundreds of pounds of ground beef.

When the ground beef is then made into hamburger patties, the danger goes up even more. The bacteria on a steak, for instance, is merely on its surface and therefore easily killed with cooking. On the other hand, a contaminated hamburger patty has bacteria throughout and therefore has to be cooked thoroughly to be killed. (The meat industry's practice of injecting ground beef with ammonia is another way to kill the bacteria).

While grass-fed cows are not exempt from E.coli, there are steps that a farmer can take to improve the cows' health and therefore the safety of the food being produced (without injecting the meat with ammonia). That practice merely creates sterile food—not healthy food. Raising truly healthy food –in this case, beef—is like climbing a ladder: each rung is essential to reach the top. And while it's not the only thing, grass is the first step. Sadly, the conventional meat industry is struggling just to keep their feet on the ground—never mind the ladder. But reaching the top starts with understanding the cow—the whole cow.

**For further steps to insure safer beef, read my next blog post.