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Beef Quality Corner

Livestock Update, October 1997

Bill R. McKinnon, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

The beef industry took a couple of serious hits in the area of food safety concerns during the month of August. First, the E. coli contamination of ground beef from Hudson Foods and resulting beef recall were on the front page and would not go away for several days. Second, anti-beef groups made the public aware of poultry litter feeding to cattle while trying to imply a linkage between litter feeding and E. coli contamination of beef. Initial damage estimates seem to indicate that beef demand suffered only minor short term concerns at this point.

The E. coli bacteria is a normal inhabitant of the digestive tract of both cattle and humans. The particular serotype of E. coli 0157:H7 is the culprit which has raised particular concern since the Jack in the Box related outbreak in the Northwest a few years ago caused the serious illness and death of some young children. According to Susan Sumner and Norman Marriott of the Food Science and Technology Department at Virginia Tech, E. coli 0157:H7 can cause hemorrhagic colitis. Symptoms include abdominal pain, followed by diarrhea (often bloody), nausea and occasionally a low grade fever. One possible complication is a urinary tract infection which can lead to kidney failure in children. Young children, the elderly and those with a suppressed immune system seem to be more susceptible to the more server complications. Problems with E. coli 0157:H7 have been linked to undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk and apple cider along with other foods.

The beef carcass can be contaminated with the organism during slaughter and processing. The bacteria is usually not considered a problem with steaks and roasts since the E. coli contamination would be located on the meat surface and is easily destroyed during the cooking process. The problem with ground is that trimmings contaminated with the organism are ground and mixed with other trimmings and the organism can survive deep within a ground beef patty or other form.

The reason the recall with Hudson Foods continued to grow in size to 25 millions pounds was in part due to their processing methods. Hudson, like many other ground beef processors, would refrigerate and recycle broken or miss shaped patties from one day's work into the following day's processing. This process was accepted under the surveillance of USDA inspectors in the plant. Once the E. coli contamination in products from Hudson was identified, this recycling of 1 to 2% of each day's production prevented investigators from definitively identifying the time period of possible contamination.

The good that came from all the media attention was the reminder to practice good sanitation in food handling. This includes frequent washing of hands, utensils, and cooking surfaces and to avoid contamination between cooked food and uncooked items. Since the Jack in the Box incidence the industry standard has been to cook ground beef to 160 degrees or until the juices run clear.

As the Hudson beef recall was underway came the revelation to the general public that poultry litter is sometimes fed to cattle. Some individuals whose job it is everyday to try to bring meat consumption to a halt played public emotions and ignorance of livestock production to the hilt. A few individuals within the beef industry even added fuel to the fire with unfortunate comments to the media.

The proper use of carefully processed poultry litter in cattle rations has been demonstrated safe for both cattle and humans for over 35 years. Taste panels have never identified any eating quality differences in the beef from cattle feed litter.

The idea of feeding poultry litter to cattle did not begin with some research crazed scientist. The idea began when a poultry producer cleaned out a poultry house and stacked the litter in a pasture field to be spread later. The pile of litter kept getting smaller each day because cows grazing on the pasture were voluntarily consuming the litter. From that point forward to today, substantial scientific research has been conducted to ensure that the cattle and the beef from cattle fed poultry litter are healthy. The use of poultry litter in cattle rations has been environmentally sound since it recycles nutrients while at the same time lowering the overall costs of producing beef.

Will these two issues be major factors in the continued erosion of beef demand? Probably not, since the media loss interest in them as more seemingly pressing stories hit the front page and evening news. Industry demand will continued to be more seriously hampered by a product that is too inconsistent in shape, size, tenderness. and taste and lacks user friendliness. These are issues to which the average producer can direct his attention.

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