In December, a study came out suggesting a link between distillers grains — a waste product of the corn-ethanol process — and a spike in cases of beef tainted with the deadly E. coli 0157 virus.

You see, the government-mandated ethanol boom has dramatically pushed up corn prices. To cut costs, feedlot operators have been substituting cheap distillers grains for pricey corn. Thus in the past year or so, we’ve seen an explosion in use of distillers grain as livestock feed, especially for cows.

When I heard about the possible E. coli 0157 link, I put two and two together and wondered aloud whether maybe we should stop feeding so much distillers grains to cows … if it causes E. coli. After all, industrial corn itself is known to damage cows’ livers and create a great intestinal environment for E. coli 0157. Maybe fragmented, denatured corn — the chewed-up-and-spit-out leftover from the ethanol process — is even worse?

Well, Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register reports that evidence of a distillers grains/E. coli 0157 link has been building, and even the USDA has gotten concerned.

Richard Raymond, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, told Brasher he “thinks distillers grains are one of several factors behind the spike in [tainted meat] recalls.”

Yikes. Does that mean the USDA’s food-safety czar agrees that maybe feedlot operators should … um … stop feeding distillers grains to cows? No. He’s got a better idea. Reports Brasher:

Raymond said the government had no intention of restricting the use of distillers grains even if the E. coli link is confirmed, and would instead leave it to the industry to decide how to address the issue. One possibility, he said, is to vaccinate cattle. “I’m not about to tell the cattlemen what they are going to feed their cows.”

To this jawdropper, Brasher dryly adds: “No E. coli vaccine has yet been approved for use in cattle.”

Right. To my way of thinking, the E. coli 0157 problem calls for a return to grass — which keeps cows healthy and free of pathogens deadly to humans. For the USDA, the problem amounts to another opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry — a new vaccine!

Brasher’s article contains other gems. Here’s one:

Meatpackers recalled a record 33.4 million pounds of beef last year for possible E. coli contamination, up from just 181,900 pounds in 2006, according to the USDA. The old record of 25.6 million pounds was set in 1997.

Whoa. That’s an 18-fold spike in a single year. And get this:

The 21 recalls last year — the most since 2002 — included one by now-defunct Topps Meat Co. that totaled 21.7 million pounds.

So a single giant recall in 2007 nearly matched the previous record for recalls in an entire year.

Here’s an interesting tidbit on the economics of distillers grains — why feedlot operators will likely keep using them even if they’re shown to cause the deadly virus:

The … president of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association said he pays $35 a ton for distillers grains, the equivalent of $2.85 a bushel for corn. In his area, corn has been selling for more than $4 a bushel. It takes the equivalent of 70 bushels of corn to fatten a steer.