E. Coli infections in humans are on the rise. One of the most pervasive food borne illnesses that causes many illnesses and deaths annually, Escherichia coli (E. coli) contamination is responsible for more than 20,000 infections and 200 deaths each year in the United States (1). This relatively recent phenomenon begs the question: what’s causing it?

E. coli is found on cattle farms and can live in the intestines of healthy cattle, and was first recognized as a human problem in 1982, from a contaminated hamburger (2).

How the E. coli gets from the cow's intestines into hamburgers is a rather gruesome and gut wrenching story, which goes like this. When the cow’s throat is cut, while it is being cruelly slaughtered, they often pass stool and urine out of fear, then fall down writhing in their own blood and excrement. E. coli contamination generally starts when bacteria in feces on a cow’s hide are transferred to the carcass (3). The flesh can become contaminated during slaughter and butchering, and E. coli organisms can be thoroughly mixed into beef when it is ground into hamburger.

Slaughterhouses have added many steps attempting to keep carcasses clean, including steam pasteurization and hot water washes. But regular tests at the slaughterhouses still turn up occasional traces of E. coli, and sometimes when not caught this leads to E. coli contamination and food poisoning incidents. This problem has prompted those in the industry to call for a vaccine.

A large-scale study of a new vaccine on calves is being coordinated and paid for by Cargill, the food giant that is the biggest producer of ground beef in the country. This new vaccine for cattle may cost $10 per animal (4). However, in a good year, feedlot owners only make a profit $25-$35 per animal. So the cost of the vaccine to the feedlot owners is prohibitive.

A simpler alternative is available however (aside from the obvious one of stopping the whole sordid business), as by feeding hay to cattle rather than grain, E. coli can be dramatically reduced (5). Cornell scientists reported in the journal Science, that grain-based cattle diets promote the growth of E. coli. Most bacteria are killed by the acidity in the human stomach, but E. coli from grain-fed cattle are resistant to strong acids. Thus the E. coli problem is largely caused by modern factory farm methods that leads to cattle being kept on crowded feedlots and fed primarily corn, an unnatural diet. The cattle are sent to the feedlots to fatten them up for slaughter.

A fact popularized by the recent movie, Food Inc., is that the government heavily subsidizes the cost of the corn that they feed the cattle with, so in effect, the government corn subsidy is contributing to/causing the E. coli problem.

It is interesting (if that is the right word) that the farmer only makes a "profit" of $25 - $35 an animal. Is it worth it? The karma (the results of his actions) that he will suffer in the future is way out of proportion to the minimal income he makes! As Jesus taught: As you sow, so shall you reap.

Is a cow's pain and suffering only worth $25 - $35?