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Tainted Beef: Is Organic Just as Dangerous as Feedlot?

Cattle grazing on pasture

A recent study by Kansas State University concluded that in terms of presence of E. coli O157:H7, there was no difference between “organic,” “naturally-raised” and conventionally raised beef.  Feedlots provide all of the conventionally raised beef and the vast majority of organic and naturally-raised beef.  Only a small percentage of organic beef is grassfed and finished on pasture.

The study reported that feces from 14% of the organic and naturally-raised cattle contained the pathogenic strain of E. coli, and that this number was comparable to conventional systems. What the study did NOT include were samples from cattle that were pasture-finished or grassfed, surprisingly, not a requirement of either organic or naturally-raised systems.  I imagine that there are many consumers who will be surprised to learn this.

The benefits of raising animals on pasture and grass are clear: cows fed forage and grass diets have a lower-acid rumen and lower-acid rumens contain less pathogenic E. coli. No real dispute exists. As long as we continue to allow feedlots, it should come as no surprise that pathogenic E. coli thrives in today’s beef. While there is always a chance that grassfed beef could be contaminated by contact with feces from grain-fed cattle, producers in our program choose carefully who processes their animals to ensure this doesn’t happen. If our grant makers would consider spending more resources pursuing human health and less on shoring up a broken agricultural system we might all realize the benefits.

If the goal of this study was to debunk the safety myth of the majority of organic and naturally-raised beef, it may have succeeded–but to what end? Hundreds of people sicken and die each year because of preventable food borne illnesses, which this study did nothing to address. Had the goal of this study been to figure out a safer way to produce meat, it was a myopic failure. The research on the safety benefits of grassfed production exists, but instead of building upon this knowledge, millions of dollars have been spent to justify a broken system. I can only assume that this is because so many millions are already invested in it.

Am I saying all organic and naturally-raised beef is dangerous? Absolutely not.  We have some truly great exponents of organic philosophy.  However the organic and naturally-raised cattle that end up in feedlots–as permitted by both standards–appear to be achieving the same results: sick cows and potentially sick people.

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