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The Next Bad Beef Scandal
Cattle feed now contains things like chicken manure and dead cats
U.S. News and World Report
By Michael Satchell, Stephen J. Hedges and Linda Kulman
It was about as exciting as things get in quiet Columbus, Neb. Last week, just a few days after their arrival, a SWAT team of agricultural inspectors forced the closing of the town's Hudson Foods Co. plant, declaring that a jumbled record system and questionable procedures made it difficult, if not impossible, to determine how E. coli bacteria had tainted the hamburger patties fashioned there. The bad meat, the inspectors found, came from one of seven slaughterhouses that supplied Hudson on June 5. Just which one wasn't immediately clear. Hudson recalled 25 million pounds of its meat, and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman offered assurances that the plant would not open until "far more stringent safety standards" had been adopted. "All evidence at this point," he added, "indicates that we have contained the outbreak."
Glickman's declaration may have been a tad premature. The true extent of the Hudson hamburger contamination will remain a mystery until inspectors know exactly which plants supplied the beef. From there, they will have to investigate further to determine if Hudson's suppliers also sent bad meat to other food companies. What is indisputable, however, is that the problems at Hudson represent only one of many threats to the nation's meat supply.
Bargain breakfast. Agriculture experts say a slew of new and questionable methods of fattening cattle are being employed by farmers. To trim costs, many farmers add a variety of waste substances to their livestock and poultry feed and no one is making sure they are doing so safely. Chicken manure in particular, which costs from $15 to $45 a ton in comparison with up to $125 a ton for alfalfa, is increasingly used as feed by cattle farmers despite possible health risks to consumers. In regions with large poultry operations, such as California, the South, and the mid-Atlantic, more and more farmers are turning to chicken manure as a cheaper alternative to grains and hay.
Lamar Carter is one such cattle farmer. Carter recently purchased 745 tons of litter scooped from the floors of local chicken houses, stacking it 12 feet high on his farm near Dardanelle, Ark. After allowing the protein-rich excrement to heat up for seven to 10 days, Carter mixes it with smaller amounts of soybean bran, and feeds this fecal slumgullion to his 800 head of cattle. "My cows are fat as butterballs," Carter says. "If I didn't have chicken litter, I'd have to sell half my herd. Other feed's too expensive."
Health officials are not as enthusiastic. Chicken manure often contains campylobacter and salmonella bacteria, which can cause disease in humans, as well as intestinal parasites, veterinary drug residues, and toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. These bacteria and toxins are passed on to the cattle and can be cycled to humans who eat beef contaminated by feces during slaughter. A scientific paper scheduled for publication this fall in the journal Preventive Medicine points to the potential dangers of recycling chicken waste to cattle. "Feeding manure that has not been properly processed is supercharging the cattle feces with pathogens likely to cause disease in consumers," says Dr. Neal Barnard, head of the Washington, D.C. based health lobby Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an author of the article.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates there may be as many as 80 million incidences of food-borne illness each year in the United States, and about 9,000 deaths (box, Page 24). Salmonella accounts for 4 million cases, of which 500 to 1,000 are fatal. Campylobacter, which causes acute gastroenteritis, afflicts between 4 million and 6 million people annually, killing about 100. E. coli, the bacteria that was found in the tainted Hudson Foods beef, causes up to 250 fatalities and triggers serious illness in up to 20,000 people annually. At least 17 people have fallen ill from eating contaminated Hudson beef.
Agricultural refuse such as corncobs, rice hulls, fruit and vegetable peelings, along with grain byproducts from retail production of baked goods, cereals, and beer, have long been used to fatten cattle. In addition, some 40 billion pounds a year of slaughterhouse wastes like blood, bone, and viscera, as well as the remains of millions of euthanized cats and dogs passed along by veterinarians and animal shelters, are rendered annually into livestock feed in the process turning cattle and hogs, which are natural herbivores, into unwitting carnivores.
The kitchen sink. Animal-feed manufacturers and farmers also have begun using or trying out dehydrated food garbage, fats emptied from restaurant fryers and grease traps, cement-kiln dust, even newsprint and cardboard that are derived from plant cellulose. Researchers in addition have experimented with cattle and hog manure, and human sewage sludge. New feed additives are being introduced so fast, says Daniel McChesney, head of animal-feed safety for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, that the government cannot keep pace with new regulations to cover them.
No accurate statistics exist on how many farmers feed poultry waste to their cattle. Roger Hoestenbach, former president of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which sets standards for the animal-feed industry, estimates it occurs to some degree in half to three quarters of the states. Regulating the safety of the nation's animal feed is the FDA's responsibility, but the agency only monitors interstate commerce. Waste products are rarely shipped over long distances, because transportation costs wipe out the savings from using cheaper materials. Manure is not used by the large, commercial livestock-feed manufacturers because they would be required to perform expensive tests to detect pathogens and toxins. But farmers don't have to use commercial feed; they are free to feed their animals anything they choose, and many use poultry litter.
Distasteful as it may seem, chicken and turkey droppings can be fed safely if handled properly. This involves correctly stacking the manure for four to eight weeks while the naturally generated heat raises temperatures to 160 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit, high enough to destroy bacteria and toxins. However, farmers rarely if ever check the temperatures of manure piles or test to make sure the waste is pathogen free, according to interviews with university extension experts, state and federal agriculture officials, livestock feed-industry regulators, and beef growers in large poultry producing states. Some farmers say they feed chicken manure raw to cattle straight from the broiler house, which virtually ensures problems. Others "go by the smell" to judge when it is ready.
Studies of manure-feed safety, argue the authors of the Preventive Medicine report, have been conducted largely in controlled environments, not in the casual, unregulated conditions on most farms. Few studies address public health aspects, and there is an overall dearth of published information. "Feeding manure may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it is safe if you process it properly," says the FDA's McChesney. "If you don't, it's like playing with matches around gasoline." Rodney Noel, secretary of the AAFCO feed-standards group, agrees there is a serious regulatory gap. "There should be some decent production oversight of these types of byproducts," he says, "particularly when there is a possibility of contamination."
Mad cows. The contents of animal feed are attracting more attention as a result of the outbreak of so-called mad cow disease in Great Britain and concern that similar problems could occur here. More than a dozen Britons died after eating beef from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The cattle are thought to have contracted the disease by eating rendered brains and spinal cords of sheep infected with a condition called scrapie. While scrapie is far less common in the United States, on August 4 the FDA ordered a halt to feeding all slaughterhouse wastes to U.S. cattle and sheep as a BSE safety precaution. Seventy-five percent of the nation's 90 million cattle had been eating feed containing slaughterhouse byproducts, so the ban raises the possibility that more farmers and feed manufacturers will turn to cheap additives like manure and other questionable waste products.
The Department of Agriculture recently instituted a high-tech regime of meat inspections to catch bacteria like E. coli, but those procedures are still being introduced into packing plants. In addition, the department is hobbled by old laws, as it was in the Hudson Foods case: It couldn't legally close the company's Columbus plant once problems were discovered but could only recommend the company suspend operations. Hudson complied, but the department's inability to act unilaterally, Glickman said, was a frustration. "One of the biggest loopholes out there is the fact that I do not have authority to order a recall of bad product or bad meat," he said. That may change if the administration succeeds in pushing through a legislative fix this fall. Consumers, meanwhile, who generally know little or nothing about what happens to meat on its way to their table, also have no way to learn if their beef has been fattened on chicken droppings. And maybe they don't want to know.
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