New reports are emerging around a concern that the increase in ethanol production is fueling an increase in E. coli contamination. The connection is distiller's grain, a byproduct of ethanol production, that is becoming a cheap source of food for cattle.
As reported in the Des Moines Register on Jan 27, 2008: "Studies at two universities suggest that feeding cattle a byproduct of ethanol production known as distillers grains may increase levels of a deadly form of E. coli bacteria.
"Concerned about those findings, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists have recently put 300 cattle on a diet of distillers grains and are testing them regularly for the bacteria. Results won't be known until later this year."1
The article continues to say that "Researchers at Kansas State University noticed the possible E. coli connection to distillers grains in 2005. A second study found a twofold increase in E. coli levels in cattle fed the product compared with those that ate only corn. Research at the University of Nebraska showed mixed results. Cattle fed a diet comprising 10 percent to 30 percent distillers grains actually had lower rates of E. coli than cattle on a diet of all corn. But cattle fed 40 percent to 50 percent distillers grains showed higher E. coli rates.
"That would suggest that there was something about these distillers grains diets that influenced the ability of these cattle to shed E. coli," said David Smith, one of the scientists who worked on the Nebraska research."2
Richard Raymond, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for food safety, was referenced as saying "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."3
This is an ironic twist to progressive policy solutions and shows that we are indeed in a new world needing new solutions for new problems. By increasing biofuels we are increasing the economics of 'factory farms'. "Closing the loop", or turning a waste in to a product, has meant that in ethanol production wet grain mash is being reused as a feed supply for cattle, thereby lowering the production costs of cattle and increasing the economic returns of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs, a.k.a factory farms). As well, a wet grain is more energy efficient since you do not use additional energy to dry the grain after ethanol production, which means the net energy balance of corn based ethanol is better with wet distillers grain than dried grain.
As well, recent federal legislation encourages the expansion of ethanol production. This will mean an increase in distiller's grain. Will it mean an increase in E. coli as well?
Makes the stomach turn just thinking about it.
1) Philip Brasher, "Scientists study possible link between ethanol byproduct and E. coli", Des Moines Register, January 27, 2008, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080127/NEWS/801270330
3) A quote from same article, not exact quote from Raymond.