So, first some facts:  the CDC reports that Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a leading cause of foodborne illness.  Based on a 1999 estimate, 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occur in the United States each year.   The CDC found also that from 1996-2004, the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 infections decreased 42 percent.  However, 2007 started an ominous "Uptick." 

As I blogged about last year – E. coli’s comeback: What’s with that?” – in some 21 recalls, ground beef companies have recalled more than 33 million pounds of E. coli O157:H7-contaminated meat.  2008 has also seen recalls and we are not even a month into the year.  In the last year hundreds have been sickened, including dozens of children who have undergone kidney dialysis as a result, some have died. 

Why the increase in 2007 and 2008 in E. coli illnesses and recalls after years of decreases?

There are as many theories as there are authorities, researchers, and meat packers.  Some of my thoughts from December 2007 surfaced again in Phil Brasher’s article, “Scientists study possible link between ethanol byproduct and E. coli.”  A nationwide surge in beef recalls has pointed the finger at an unlikely culprit – the nation’s fuel ethanol industry.  Studies at two universities suggest that feeding cattle a byproduct of ethanol production known as distillers grains may increase levels of a deadly form of E. coli bacteria. 

It seems to be about saving or making a buck. According to the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, cattlemen pay $35 a ton for distillers grains, the equivalent of $2.85 a bushel for corn.  In Iowa corn has been selling for more than $4 a bushel.  It takes about 33 bushels to make a ton.  It takes the equivalent of 70 bushels of corn to fatten a steer.  So if I did my math correct, if you feed a steer corn, it costs about $132 to fatten it; if distillers grain is used, $75. Hmmmm, I wonder if that has anything to do with it.  It will be interesting to see the cattlemen explain that to a jury in an E. coli case.

I found some interesting quotes about the price of steers and how the costs of inputs like, corn vs distillers grain, might drive risky decisions – “In The Cattle Markets” – A weekly newsletter jointly produced by Kansas State University, University of Nebraska and Utah State University.

“Feedlots seem to be signaling that they would prefer to place feeders at heavier weights and avoid feeding that high priced corn. Fed cattle weights have also been declining since November of last year and are now below the 5-year average. That decline may also reflect a dislike for feeding high priced corn…. Packer margins have likely improved in the last few weeks but feedlots are probably losing over $100 per head on most sale lots…. Lower returns and increased risk is the current state of the industry.”

Mr. Brasher also reported that “there are other theories for the surge in recalls.  One is that the bacteria spread from steer to steer more easily last year because feedlots were muddier than usual.  Another possibility is that bacteria have evolved in a way that makes them harder to detect.  Yet another theory is that immigration raids have robbed slaughterhouses of experienced workers.”  Sound familiar?  Here were some of my thoughts on the "Uptick" from December 2007:

  • Complacency:  After five years of progress with the E. coli problem, one wonders if meat processors have consciously or unconsciously slacked off, relaxing their testing procedures so that they are less likely to detect tainted meat.
  • Better Reporting:  One of my associates believes that more doctors are more likely to recognize the symptoms of E. coli poisoning, thereby increasing the chances that an outbreak will be detected, leading to a recall.
  • Global Warming:  Too dry? One theory has it that drought through much of the southeast and southwest has led to more fecal dust wafting in the breezes through beef-slaughtering plants, creating new avenues for beef to become tainted. How’s that make you feel about that ground sirloin? Too wet? This theory focuses on excessive rainfall in other regions, which leads to muddy pens that serve as an ideal vehicle for E. coli at meat-processing plants.
  • High oil prices:  They get blamed for everything else, so why not food-poisoning? The theory is that $3 gas has fueled the growth of ethanol plants. Those plants tend to be built next to feedlots, because the plants produce a byproduct called distiller’s grains, which serves as an excellent feed for livestock. Problem is, according to research at Kansas State University, the distillers grain also increases the incidence of E. coli in the hindguts of cattle.
  • Illegal Immigration:  Wait, perhaps not. The New York Times reported that immigration officials began a crackdown at slaughterhouses across the country last fall. Some now are hiring men from homeless missions and providing free transportation to many of them. Hmmm, a influx of unskilled, but US workers, with no experience and high turnover.
  • The Darwinian explanation:  Another theory has it that previous interventions – from Jack in the Box to Odwalla and ConAgra – have forced the E. coli microbes to adapt, selecting pathogens that are more resistant to detection or intervention.

Josh Funk, from ground zero of the E. coli wars, AP Omaha, wrote yesterday, “Government scientists working to unlock secrets of E. Coli.” I loved the quote from Mohammad Koohmaraie, director of the U.S. Meat Animal Reseach Center: "Our purpose is to save little kids’ lives."  I could not agree more.  As Mr. Brasher also reported:

A Seattle law firm wants to find out if ground beef is being contaminated with harmful strains of E. coli bacteria that federal inspectors don’t look for. The firm of Marler and Clark, which specializes in litigating cases involving food-borne illnesses, recently announced plans to test 5,000 beef samples over the course of a year. Samples that test positive will be turned over to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the firm said. The government and beef industry have focused their testing on a single strain of E. coli known as O157:H7. Richard Raymond, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food safety, said he supported the law firm’s testing plan. He said the department could not afford to do its own testing for alternative E. coli strains.