A few weeks ago I continued my posts on the question of the “Uptick” in E. coli O157:H7 cases by asking this question:

Is this an explanation? What is the change? I understand that perhaps with the increase in the price of oil there has been an increase in ethanol production and waste products – eaten by cows?

I found this interesting article put out by Kansas State University – Feeding cattle byproduct of ethanol production causes E. coli O157:H7 to spike.

According to the K-State Press Release – Ethanol plants and livestock producers have created a symbiotic relationship. Cattle producers feed their livestock distiller’s grains, a byproduct of the ethanol distilling process, giving ethanol producers have an added source of income. But recent research at Kansas State University has found that cattle fed distiller’s grain have an increased prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in their hindgut. The growth in ethanol plants means more cattle are likely to be fed distiller’s grain, therefore harboring E. coli O157:H7 and potentially a source of health risks to humans. Research by K-State in the next few years will focus on finding out why E. coli O157:H7 is more prevalent in cattle fed a distiller’s grain diet. It could be something that changes in the animals’ hindgut as a result of feeding distiller’s grains, or maybe the byproduct provides a nutrient for the bacteria.

Perhaps the increase in the price of oil, leading to more ethanol production, leading to more E. coli O157:H7 in cow’s guts, in combination with a less experienced slaughterhouse workforce, has increased the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger, leading to the increased recalls and illnesses?  See – Crackdown Upends Slaughterhouse’s Work Force.  Go, K-State!

As good colleges do, there seems to be a bit of a rivalry between K-State and Big Red.  BILL HORD? of the WORLD-HERALD BUREAU reported that, ?” Kansas E. coli research is puzzling to UNL.”

A Nebraska research team studying E. coli contamination reported Thursday that its studies do not support Kansas findings that byproducts from ethanol contribute to the prevalence of a toxic strain of the pathogen in cattle.  The team of scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has seen no increase in the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle fed distillers grain, the byproduct, said Terry Klopfenstein, an animal science professor at UNL.

In football this year the score was 73 to 31 – Nebraska won

A KSU press release on the research was met with nationwide media attention, said KSU pathobiologist T.G. Nagaraja, whose voice mail box was full Thursday.  "I knew it would generate some attention, but I did not realize the extent to which it has," Nagaraja said in an interview Thursday.

Jerry W. Kram of Ethanol Producer’s Magazine wrote: "Study finds DDG-E. coli link.”  Although the post was on December 7, the interview appears to have been done before the controversy over the findings surfaced.  In the conclusion:

The paper discussed two hypotheses to explain the increased prevalence of the pathogenic bacteria. One is that using distillers grains lowers the amount of starch and increases the amount of fiber in the cattle rations. That changes the environment of the cattle’s digestive tract which allows the pathogen to gain a competitive advantage over other intestinal flora. Another hypothesis is that there is some component of distillers grains that promotes the growth of E. coli O157. There is some evidence supporting this idea from in vitro experiments.

The conclusions of the paper stated that the implications of these observations were very serious because of the increasing role of distillers grains in the cattle industry due to the rapid expansion of ethanol production.

I can hear the grass-fed organic group crowing about this too, but PLEASE, not too fast.  As was posted on www.barfblog.com a few weeks ago:

Chef and restaurateur Lenny Russo joins other food pornographers such as Mark Bittman and Nina Planck in promoting fashion over facts by recycling the claim that grass-fed cattle have significantly lower levels of dangerous E. coli than grain-fed cattle.

Mike Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and Russo’s target, does a nice job of, um, crushing Russo’s assertions in today’s Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune:

"Russo cited conclusions from a 1998 study from Cornell University that cattle fed a diet of grass, not grain, had very few E. coli, and that those bacteria that survived in the cattle feces would not survive in the human when eaten in undercooked meat, particularly hamburger. This statement is based on a study of only three cows rotated on different diets and for which the researchers did not even test for E. coli O157:H7. Unfortunately, the authors extrapolated these incredibly sparse results to the entire cattle industry. The Cornell study is uncorroborated in numerous published scientific papers from renowned research groups around the world. Finally, work conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health as part of a national study on foodborne disease recently showed that eating red meat from local farms was a significant risk factor for E. coli infection. …

"Russo would understand this issue in an entirely different light if he had been with me when I had to explain to distraught parents that their young daughter’s death was due to eating an undercooked hamburger, prepared by them, and the E. coli that caused her illness came from meat from a cow raised only on pasture grass and processed by the local meat packer. The cow also came from Grandpa’s farm down the road."