For some reason, the once popular sci-fi television series “The X-Files” came to mind last week as the unfolding debacle at XL Foods led to an ever-widening beef recall — and not just because of the X in the company’s name.
There’s something surreal about advice from public health officials telling you to go to your freezer and throw out any beef of unknown origin, just to be safe. It leaves a lasting impression on a consumer’s palate.
The XL file, which is prompting the largest E. coli-related meat recall in Canadian history, should be prompting some soul searching about how seriously we take public safety in the face of these persistent E. coli threats. It should also prompt some discussion over how we raise beef.
Officials don’t seem to really know how far these contaminated products were distributed, or for how long. There is a lengthening list of people who are sick with E. coli in Western Canada right now, but only a few so far that have been directly traced to contaminated products from the plant in question.
The truth is, we know a lot about E. coli along with other harmful organisms and how they operate. We also know a lot about how to prevent contamination, starting with right in our own kitchens. It is common knowledge in North America that if you don’t cook your meat, particularly ground beef, to 160 F temperature, or if your kitchen counter hygiene is lacking, you are placing your own health and the health of your loved ones at risk.
Yet these outbreaks continue to surprise us. There are three possible explanations — we are either stubborn, stupid or selfish — none of which bode well for humanity’s survival.
In spite of the company’s own monitoring systems, and the dozens of Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors working at that plant, the plant’s ability to control E. coli was reportedly overwhelmed by a large number of cattle carrying the bacteria entering the slaughterhouse.
The first question needs to be, why?
Truth: Studies have shown E. coli contamination tends to be higher in grain-fed versus grass-fed beef. Approximately 30 per cent of feedlot cattle shed the organism. USDA researchers have further determined that switching cattle from grain to forage resulted in a thousandfold decline in E. coli populations within five days. The surviving E. coli had a reduced ability to survive an acid shock, mimicking passage through the human stomach.
However, the cattle-finishing industry continues to feed a high-starch diet because of its better feed efficiency.
Truth: There is a vaccine available from Bioniche for cattle that reduces E. coli’s ability to colonize the bovine’s gut. The vaccine, Econiche, has been fully licensed for the Canadian market for four years.
At $3 per dose, which in some cases must be administered twice, the company estimates it would cost $50 million to vaccinate Canada’s 12.5 million cattle. A national vaccination program would reduce E. coli contamination in cattle by up to two-thirds. Studies have shown even having some of the cattle vaccinated in a feedlot can reduce the levels of E. coli for all.
Yet less than five per cent of the Canadian cattle herd is being vaccinated, presumably because it’s a cost for which users receive no direct payback. At some point in the not-too-distant future we will be adding up the cost of an outbreak, the cost of treating victims, the lost production, the depressing effect on prices with a major processor sidelined and quite possibly the cost of a public inquiry. It will be interesting to see how they compare.
Truth: Irradiation, the use of gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams, effectively kills E. coli along with a host of other harmful organisms. Health Canada examined whether it was an effective treatment for ground beef 10 years ago, and recommended it be approved. But it has sat on a shelf ever since. Apparently no one has asked for approval to add irradiation to the list of foods already approved for the treatment in Canada. It’s expensive and the public will need to be coaxed into acceptance.
A decade ago, some consumer groups were mortified by the thought of food being “nuked,” even though there is no radioactive contact or lasting after-effects. But that was then. Now, it’s time for a rethink.
The truth is, a food value chain that maximizes feed, production and processing efficiency at the expense of the customer isn’t really all that efficient. If the beef industry won’t embrace the technologies available to protect its customers, whether that is on-farm vaccinations or food irradiation, it will have to be regulated — just as pasteurization became mandatory in the late 1930s.