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For us meat-eaters, a couple of important things happened in October of 2007. One is new and one is a continued series of events. The USDA finally published guidelines for the labeling of beef as “grass fed.” The other happening was the added recall of a few more tons of E. coli-poisoned beef. It seems like every week or two, we read of more people dying from unsafe beef products in our stores. Our meat supply should be safe but with constant recalls and deaths, how can the consumer feel confident? The USDA ruling will help lead the way to grass fed and safety.

Simple Ecology There are two things you should know about E. coli and meat safety: where E. coli comes from and why grass-fed beef is safer (and better in many other ways, too*). The most toxic form of the usually harmless bacteria Escherichia coli is the strain O157:H7. This form of E. coli was unknown before 1975 and comes directly from industrial meat pro- duction practices, forming in the stomach of cattle that are fed grain. Ruminants are designed by nature to eat grass, not grain. Grain is bad for them and causes an acidic condition in the rumen. That’s one reason true grass-fed beef is safer. It’s simple. Feed a cow only grasses — what it is supposed to eat — and it will have a healthier life; provided, of course, that it is raised in a humane and sensible manner.
So, as one can see, the disease-causing pathogen is the result of our own thoughtless action of trying to industrialize a natural process: raising cattle.

History of a Bug E. coli is our friend. In most cases it’s a benevolent bacterium that lives in our gut and elsewhere, with other bacteria by the billions. They all form the intestinal flora that is important to good health. Cows and other animals have regu- lar, benevolent E. coli in the gut also. Normally E. coli doesn’t fare too well in an acid environment. If we eat something that has regular E. coli on it, our stomach acid usually zaps it. But along came O157:H7.
Where did it come from? The best theory, and supported by Cornell University research, is that humans caused O157:H7 when we decided to feed grain to cattle in order to fatten them quicker and make industrial livestock a huge moneymaker, especially for the billions of cheap hamburgers our fast food chains sell everyday. Follow along.

Feed a cow grain and its first stomach tries to digest something that is indigestible to it. The cow gets acid indigestion to the extreme, creating a dangerous acid environment in its stomach. That condition will kill a cow every time if it isn’t treated. Meanwhile, any E. coli living there gets wiped out by the acid — well, most of the E. coli. But, as we know, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and like the case of antibiotic resistant bacteria, some E. coli survived the increase in acid and evolved to become acid-resistant. O157:H7 is acid-resistant. Now it can be found in our world. Thanks to us. (Can you say, “MRSA — antibiotic-resistant bacteria?”)

When we ingest O157:H7, it survives our stomach acid and infects our intestinal tract, releasing a toxin that can cause hemorrhagic diarrhea and fever — food poisoning. Remember, according to science, O157:H7 didn’t surface until 1975*.

Better and Safer There is a food movement growing around the world. Safer, more natural foods are in demand. What could be more natural than feeding or raising cattle the way nature intended: unconfined and eating grass? The benefits extend to other foods as well. As with organic food before it, the public is becoming aware that grass-fed beef, chicken, pork and eggs is a healthier and safer way to eat. The “grass fed” label is showing up in grocery stores. But what does it mean? Aren’t all cows fed grass sometime in their life? Usually. An industrial cow does get a little time eating mother’s milk, then a little time eating grass, then a huge portion of its weight and life is the result of standing in mud or on concrete, eating questionable grain-based and custom-designed “cow pellets,” the ingredients of which you do not want to know. But technically, any cow might eat grass at some time.

But realize this, the minute you take a cow off a grass-based diet and feed it grain, the nutritional quality of the meat or the milk it produces literally plummets, within hours. And the likelihood that you will get sick from E. coli increases.* There are similar nutritional disadvantages in the way we raise pigs and chickens in confinement, feeding them unnatural diets. Confined, industrial methods of raising animals are horrible for them and dangerous to you. There is a better way, and grass-based is it.

Enter the USDA The USDA is not the ideal model for food safety monitoring. Regulations usually do two things: they acknowledge there is a demand for a par- ticular type of product and they create opportunity for big business to skirt the rules and exploit loopholes. That’s what happened with the term “organic.” But that doesn’t dilute the importance of the terms.

In October, the USDA published guidelines for marketing a meat or livestock product as “grass fed.” Under initial review at their website*, it appears that the agency reviewed the applicable comments from grass farmers and presented standards that make sense. The main guideline is that to use the term “grass fed,” a producer must feed the animal from forage and grasses and cannot feed any grain during the animal’s life. There are other qualifications but that is a big one.

Stick With Your Local To be truly informed and know that you are getting safe meat, know your farmer. Who do you want to trust, the USDA or your local friend? The track record speaks for itself. Since 2005, our household has purchased beef, chicken, pork, turkeys and eggs exclusively from four or five local sources*. I’ve never had better tasting or safer food. And it’s been easy and fun.

Be well.
*Visit relevant links to references in this column at HeartlandHealing.com/grass.
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