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

Back in January, a high USDA official made a pair of statements that say a lot about how we regulate industrial food production here in the United States.

On the one hand, he admitted to a journalist that feeding cows high levels of distillers grains — a the mush leftover from corn ethanol production — had probably contributed to a spike in cases of beef tainted with the deadly E. coli 0157 bacteria.

On the other hand, the official insisted that his agency had no intention of regulating distillers grains use — even if a definitive distillers grains/E. coli 0157 link is established. He went so far as to declare that “I’m not about to tell the cattlemen what they are going to feed their cows.”

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In this regulatory regime, first you perform vast uncontrolled experiments involving the public — e.g., add huge amounts of ethanol waste to cow rations nationwide. And then, even if things go badly, you … do nothing.

Evidently, things work differently up in Canada, where the government doesn’t allow the use of ethanol waste as animal feed.

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Get this, from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website:

The CFIA has conducted inspections in ethanol-producing plants to obtain an overview of the manufacturing process and the ingredients used. From these inspections, and communications with the industry, it has been determined that some of the ingredients used in the ethanol manufacturing process have not been assessed for safety and require approval. This has led to the determination that DG [distillers grains] produced by the ethanol industry differ from DG from distilleries producing alcohol for human consumption.

As a result of this finding, the CFIA currently prohibits the feeding of ethanol-derived distillers grains to livestock (it allows those from liquor production).

The CFIA Web site lays out startling info on the stuff that ends up in distillers grains. Reading through it, you remember what U.S. ethanol boosters want you to forget: that distillers grains are leftovers from a chemical-intensive industrial process. Here are some highlights:

  • “Antimicrobial drugs” are “currently used in the fuel ethanol fermentation process in Canada.” Weird. I suppose they’re used to control the fermentation process. Of the drugs, virginiamycin, streptomycin, ampicillin, and penicillin show up in distillers grains at levels too low to cause trouble, the agency says. But two others, monensin sodium and tylosin tartrate, were “assessed, and not found to be acceptable without further information or restrictions.”


  • Evidently, to get the fermentation process rolling, ethanol producers in Canada — and, presumably, down here as well — are using microorganisms and enzymes with “novel traits … e.g., ethanol-tolerant yeasts, heat- or pH-stable enzymes.” Hmm.



  • Then there are the processing aids, “including anti-foam and boiler chemicals to generate steam,” that are used to make ethanol, and which inevitably end up in the distillers grains. The agency has a list of processing aids that can end up in feed without causing harm, but ethanol makers use several that don’t make the cut, including chlorine dioxide, EDTA, sodium borohydride, and sodium metabisulfite.



  • Next come mycotoxins — toxic forms of fungus that can thrive in corn stocks and concentrate in distillers grains. “Mycotoxins in DG can impair growth and reproductive efficiency in livestock that consume them,” the agency writes.



  • Finally — whew! — the agency has found “elevated levels of sulphur and sodium” in distillers grains, which could “cause adverse health effects in livestock if the amounts fed are not managed properly.” (Excess sulphur causes neurological damage in cows.)


The agency is working on a process by which distillers grains can be used as feed — but only after they setting up explicit guidelines for each of the above considerations. To sell distillers grains as feed, producers have to show that the final product meet requirements based on the above considerations.

South of the border, the regulatory framework is much leaner — and distillers grains have moved rapidly into the feed supply.

E. Coli 0157 and the L-word

It ranks among the dirtiest words in the corporate lexicon: liability. It means being forced to deal with the messes you’ve created, and that can crimp the bottom line.

At the offices of Stoel Rives LLP — a corporate law firm that counts agribusiness firms among its clients — they’re apparently getting sweaty-palmed at the prospect of liability around E. coli 0157 and the link to distillers grains. One of Stoel’s clients is Cargill, the privately owned, well-diversified agribiz giant that’s intimately tied into distillers grains story. Cargill is a) a leading maker of ethanol; b) a leading producer of livestock feed; and c) a leading beef-packer and cattle feeder.

Check this out, from Stoel’s website:

A recent Kansas State animal science study shows increased growth of Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7 in feeder cattle fed with distillers grains, which are a co-product of ethanol production. The study may have significant effects on the potential liability of biofuel producers selling the co-product distillers grains in off-take agreements, of cattle growers using distillers grains as feed and of beef processors.

Ouch. And to think Cargill fits all three descriptions: biofuel producer, cattle grower, and beef processor. The firm goes on to give a lucid explanation of why distillers grains might cause the deadly bacteria:

Low pH may be to blame. During ethanol production, corn goes through a fermentation process that converts starch to dextrose. Cattle fed diets containing low levels of starch experience a decreased intestinal pH. Low pH may affect the survivability and growth of E. coli O157:H7, as most bacteria are killed by acids produced in the stomachs of bovines.

So what should these players do, stop using distillers grains as livestock feed? No.

Distillers grains are an effective form of cattle feed, and their popularity and availability are inseparably linked with the increased demand for ethanol as a biofuel. However, E. coli illness among humans is on the rise, as is related litigation. In addition to examining processes to reduce risk, we advise clients to carefully review supply contracts and insurance policies. Look for opportunities to shift risk.

Brilliant. Don’t stop the risky behavior — try to shift blame for it on someone else. Sounds like a job for a hotshot corporate law firm.

Cargill beef factory goes ka-boom

On Easter Sunday, a Cargill beef-packing plant in Booneville, Ark. erupted in flames — evidently the result of a welding project gone wrong, Associated Press reports. (A follow-up AP story reports the plant had been churning out some 2 million pounds of frozen burgers and steaks per week.) Nobody died, but the plant was destroyed.

Cargill is both the nation’s 3rd-largest beef-packer and 3rd-largest cattle feeder.

Booneville, a tiny town, appears to have lost its fragile economy to the conflagration. Associated Press:

The Cargill meat packing plant was an economic lifeline to this small west Arkansas town, a place where almost everyone worked its lines or knew someone who did.

The meat-packing industry is currently in a mode of scaling back: ramping down kill capacity and herd size in an attempt to boost retail prices. According to the AP report, local citizens seemed skeptical that the plant would reopen.

“They’ll be applying for unemployment and food stamps” if the plant closes, a local pastor told AP. “It’s really going to hurt and this town is already hurting.”

The meat industry’s business model of settling in economically depressed areas and then pitting the people there against undocumented workers from Mexico and points south deserves to be investigated at length.

For now, another detail caught my eye: the 88,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia that AP reports had been stored at the plant. Anhydrous ammonia is nasty stuff — it’s essentially the ammonia you used to keep under your kitchen sink, but minus the water. Derived from natural gas, it’s also what industrial-scale farmers use to replenish nitrogen in fields.

Most of the plant’s anhydrous ammonia disappeared in the fire; no one’s sure if it ignited or merely leaked out. Officials were still evacuating areas near the plant Monday.

But what’s anhydrous ammonia doing in a meat-packing plant?

I called Cargill to find out; a company man called me back to explain that the anhydrous ammonia was used in the plant’s refrigeration system, playing the same role that freon plays in car air conditioners. He assured me that anhydrous ammonia is widely used for industrial-scale refrigeration. He added, a little cheekily I thought, that “your food co-op may well use it in its refrigerators.”

That may well be true. But still, I marveled that Cargill’s beef cows eat corn (and corn-derived products like distillers grains) fertilized by anhydrous ammonia — and then later their flesh is cooled with machines using the same toxic substance. And I got a little creeped out.