All On The Table: Cows, Corn, Gasoline, Spinach, E. Coli., and Grass

From a September 21, 2006 NYT op ed piece entitled "Leafy Green Sewage" we learned the most important question to ask about the spinach E. Coli contamination issue is: "Where does this particularly virulent [E.Coli O157] strain come from? It's not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms In 2003, The Journal of Dairy Science noted that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry O157 Happily, the journal also provided a remedy based on a simple experiment. When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold". Turn the page for ideas on how this insight converges with the grass fed beef movement and the current political fascination with corn-based ethanol.From the Independence Reporter newspaper of Independence, Kansas, USA comes the converging insight from a story titled: New ranching techniques borrow from old-school methods. "Looking out on the rolling tallgrass prairie surrounding his ranch, Kurtis, an Independence native, and other investors launched the Tallgrass Beef Company nine months ago, a business that is raising purely grass-fed beef cattle, with the final product being sold to customers all over the country through the company's Web site, as well as through retail outlets and now the menus of restaurants in the Chicago area".

"All cattle were grass fed until about 60 years ago, Kurtis said, explaining that the Tallgrass Beef operation is really just going back to the way cattle ranching was historically done. But then the government began providing subsidies to corn farmers, resulting in an excess of the crop and making corn an inexpensive feed source for cattle. Before long, grain-fed cattle - at least for a portion of the animal's life span - became the norm. And it remains so today".

Once again the law of unintended government subsidy consequence rears its sharp horns. Our food ox has been gored in the gut. But there is good news around the corner. The push for corn based ethanol is going to raise the price of corn, providing Mr. Kurtis with one more force driving ranchers into his supply chain.

We strongly urge you to read the full grass fed beef story. For some it may raise more questions than it answers. For others it may provide a level of comfort about the prospects for healthier spinach in the future. Here, from the TallGrass website , is a particularly good explanation of what makes the Kurtis approach unique.

Back to the spinach/corn/grass/beef convergence. There's no chance at all of having our present Congress untangle the adverse health risks of 60 years of farm policy in a timely manner. The power of special interests is too strong to overcome. This problem needs a consumer-driven push to get markets moving in the right direction.

We're hoping Mr K. does some under-TreeHugger-investigation into how important it is for water quality to keep pastured cows away from stream banks and provided stable stream crossings where needed. Industry leaders set the pattern, and he's just the sort of guy we think can get that right and help the markets move in a direction that good for our health, the animals, and our environment.

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