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Feeding Distillers Grain to Cows: Why the Ethanol Boom Means More E. Coli Burgers

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's CAFO's vs. Free Range page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

Back in 2007, amid a boom in US corn-based ethanol, researchers at Kansas State University released a sobering study involving distillers grains-the mash that's left over after corn has been fermented and distilled into ethanol. As various government programs ramped up ethanol production-and with it the price of corn-the livestock industry was increasingly turning to distillers grains as a cheap corn substitute. But the Kansas researchers found that the stuff seemed to cause a spike in a particularly dangerous-to-humans form of E. coli in the cows' guts.

"Distiller's grain is a good animal feed," the study's lead researcher said in a press release. But its tendency to boost the potentially deadly E. coli 0157 strain "is likely to have profound implications in food safety."

The US Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for monitoring the safety of meat products, acknowledged the problem from the start. The USDA's then-undersecretary for food safety, Richard Raymond, told the Des Moines Register in early 2008 that he thought distillers grains were one of several factors behind the massive spike in recalls of E. coli 0157-tainted beef that had occurred in 2007. And he also telegraphed the department's strategy for responding to the threat: inaction. Here's the Register:

Raymond said the government had no intention of restricting the use of distillers grains even if the E. coli link is confirmed, and would instead leave it to the industry to decide how to address the issue. One possibility, he said, is to vaccinate cattle.

"I'm not about to tell the cattlemen what they are going to feed their cows," he said.

But as the Register noted-and as remains true today-there is no approved E. coli vaccine.     

Since then, of course, the ethanol boom has continued-production has more than doubled since 2007-corn prices have stayed high, and livestock operations consume massive amounts of distillers grains.


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