In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat industry.

Remember the good old days, when gigantic meat and dairy producers stuffed cows into feedlots and fed them corn? Sure, cows evolved to eat grass, and corn wears out their livers (and makes their digestive tracts friendly to E. coli 0157, a strain harmless to cows but deadly to humans).

Yet we may soon look back fondly on those days. The government-mandated spike in ethanol production has made corn a pricey luxury for feedlot operators. To cut costs, they’re scrambling to substitute scarce corn for abundant distillers grains — the mush that’s left over from corn after the ethanol process.

For every bushel (56 pounds) of corn ethanol makers suck in, they spit out about 18 pounds of distillers grains. And as ethanol production has ramped up — from 2.1 billion gallons in 2002 to an expected 9 billion gallons this year — more and more distillers grains have ended up in cattle feed (and, to a lesser extant, in hog and poultry feed).

But like manure in a feedlot packed with corn-fed steers, problems associated with distillers grains as feed are piling up.

A report from the Fort Collins-based Coloradoan sums up the situation.

The article starts with a topic I’ve written about before: the link between E. coli 0157 and distillers grains, Turns out that distillers grains seem to make cows even more susceptible to E. coli 0157 than whole corn. As the USDA recently admitted, the distillers grains craze at least partially explains last year’s spike in meat recalls (though the agency has no plans of regulating distillers grains use).

Evidently, the ethanol waste product also puts cows in danger of sulfur poisoning. Here is the Coloradoan:

Increased sulfur in the distillers grains comes from adding sulfur to the ethanol machines … High levels of sulfur can cause sulfur toxicity in cattle. While that doesn’t taint meat, cattle suffer neurological damage that causes the animals to ram their heads into the wall, stare up at the sky and, if not treated, die.

Yikes. That’s not going to do much to slow down the whole downer-cow problem.

Then there’s the problem of phosphorus, a fertilizer needed in monstrous doses for industrial-corn production. I’ve been trying to drive home the story about how the ethanol boom is sparking a surge in the mining of phosphate rock: an environmentally devastating, and geopolitically perilous, activity.

Well, it turns out that the ethanol process concentrates the phosphorus taken up by corn into distillers grains, where it becomes a pollution problem once it runs through cows’ guts. Back to the Coloradoan:

A 2006 Iowa State University study found that feeding 20 percent or 40 percent distillers grains increased feedlot phosphorous in manure by 60 percent to 120 percent.

Hmm. And this means …

Environmentally, increased phosphorous levels in cow manure can seep into the ground and water, causing utrification, which occurs when algae blooms suck oxygen out of the water, killing fish and presenting other ecosystem problems.

Hello, dead zone. It’s a bitter irony that phosphorous that’s ripped out of the land in Florida, leaving a trail of radioactive waste in its wake, winds up in the Gulf of Mexico, blotting out marine life. Two externalized environmental disasters for the price of one.

Moreover, these problems aren’t going away. The Coloradoan reports that ethanol producers churned out 10 million tons of distillers grains in 2006 — which will increase to 16 million tons in 2010.

For now, “Seventy-five to 80 percent of the distillers grains are being fed to dairy and beef cattle,” a researcher tells the Coloradoan.

Should we be bracing for more E. coli 0157, more cows downed by sulfur sickness, and more dead fish?

These are touchy questions — for those who have a stake in ethanol as an answer to our fuel troubles. If feedlot operators stopped using distillers grains and insisted on straight corn, food prices would rise even faster than they currently are.

Moreover, profits in the ethanol industry — despite billions every year in government subsidies — would vanish without a robust market for the waste product. And even the staunchest biofuel champions admit that without a use for distillers grains, corn-based ethanol would consume more energy than it produces.

Perhaps because of those factors, the USDA (as noted above) refuses to regulate distillers grains use. “I’m not about to tell the cattlemen what they are going to feed their cows,” the USDA’s food-safety czar recently told the Des Moines Register — after acknowledging that feeding cows distillers grains threatens food safety.

But a nascent strategy does seem to be developing: Export the problem. According to one account, the trend is already underway:

Not only was 2007 a record year for exports overall — it was a record year for distillers grains exports. USDA data shows the U.S. exported 2.36-million metric tons of distillers grains in 2007 — an increase of 88-percent from the 1.25-million metric tons exported in 2006 — and nearly triple 2004 levels.

Indeed, the current issue of Distillers Grains Quarterly — my new favorite magazine — focuses on “Exploring Export Opportunities.”

Oklahoma: Tyson, Cargill fowling our water

You don’t want to live downstream from a bunch of factory-scale chicken confinements. If you don’t believe me, ask Oklahoma attorney general Drew Edmondson, who’s trying to stop Arkansas-based poultry factories from killing his state’s waterways.

The state of Oklahoma is suing several meat-packing giants, including Tyson and Cargill, for dumping untreated manure into the Illinois River Watershed. Here’s what the Oklahoma AG told a federal court, according to an Associated Press account:

Our evidence will show that these persistent and pervasive violations of state and federal law have infested the rivers and springs and wells of the Illinois River Watershed with biological pathogens that have created an imminent and substantial threat to human health.

To bolster his case, I’d direct Edmondson to an article we ran last year by Elizabeth Royte, documenting the health threat from water infected with factory-farm waste. Royte’s piece needs to be read in its entirety, but here’s a choice nugget:

Factory-farmed poultry menace drinking water, too. Their food contains arsenic, as an antimicrobial agent. A human carcinogen, arsenic ends up in chicken litter, which is spread on farm fields. From there, the metal can leach into soil and groundwater. In Prairie Grove, Ark., citizens are suing poultry owners for elevating local cancer rates to 50 times the national average. The European Union banned arsenicals from poultry production in 1988.

For its part, Tyson Foods — the globe’s biggest meat conglomerate — isn’t impressed by Oklahoma’s complaints. But I’m not much impressed with the company’s defense. A company lawyer assured the court that Tyson’s chicken shit posed no problems for Oklahoma, because “There is nothing more going on in this watershed that’s different than the rest of the state [of Arkansas].”

Hmm. So just because you’re not limiting your abuse to the watershed, but also dumping toxic shit on the rest of our own state, makes it ok?

The problem isn’t new. AP reports: “Edmondson sued the poultry companies in 2005, saying litter pollution rendered Lake Tenkiller in northeastern Oklahoma 70 percent oxygen dead and accused poultry companies of treating Oklahoma’s rivers like open sewers.”

And speaking of phosphorus (see above), get this: the attorney general “also said the amount of phosphorous dumped on the ground in the watershed each year is equivalent to the waste of 10.7 million people.”

Downer-cow abuse downs slaughterhouse

The Wall Street Journal reports that Hallmark/Westland, the California slaughterhouse whose abuse of downer (sick) cows led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history, will likely shut down.

Reports the Journal:

Hallmark/Westland struggled for years, but it began turning a profit consistently after being approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin supplying beef for the federal school-lunch program in 2003.

I’ve got an op-ed on the whole unhappy affair over on Comment is Free, a blog run by the Guardian.