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Growing Use of Distiller's Grain Raises E. Coli Concerns

Jan 28, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Could the growing use of ethanol be a factor in E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted beef?  Researchers at Kansas State University say it’s possible, since more and more cattle are now being fed with distillers’ grain, a byproduct of ethanol manufacturing.  For reasons that are not clear, cattle fed distillers’ grain are more likely to be contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

In 2007, recalls of E. coli tainted meat were double what they were previous year.  The effects on both public health and the economy have been huge. The 67-year old Topps Meat Company filed for bankruptcy last fall after it recalled more than 21 million pounds of tainted meat that made hundreds of people ill.  Even giants like Tyson Fresh Meats and Cargill Meat Solutions have seen their reputations sullied by E. coli recalls.  The meat industry says it spends $350 million a year to keep E. coli out of meat, yet the recalls and outbreaks keeps coming.

In the past several years, the production of ethanol has increased sharply, as the US looks for ways to become more oil independent.  But once grains like corn have been turned into ethanol, producers are left with distiller’s grain.  This has resulted in a symbiotic relationship between ethanol producers and cattle ranchers.   Ethanol plants need a way to dispose of the grain left over from the manufacturing process, and cattle ranchers need an inexpensive  source of feed for their livestock.  The arrangement has proved so mutually beneficial to ethanol producers and ranchers that often, ethanol factories are built next to feed lots.

This arrangement, however, could be having unintended consequences. Through three rounds of testing, researches at Kansas State found that  the prevalence of E. coli 0157:H7 was about twice as high in cattle fed distiller’s grain compared with those cattle that were on a diet lacking the ethanol byproduct.  No one knows why this is so, but what is clear is that as ethanol production has grown, more and more cattle are being fed with distiller’s grains.  This could account, in part, for last year’s record recalls of E. coli tainted meat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. coli 0157:H7 is responsible for sickening 73,000 people every year, and of those, 60 will die from the disease. The symptoms of E. coli poisoning usually occur within 3 to 9 days after a victim eats contaminated foods. E. coli 0157:H7 causes a disease called hemorrhagic colitis, which is the sudden onset of stomach pain and severe cramps. This is followed by diarrhea that is watery and bloody. Sometimes there is vomiting, but there is no fever. The illness lasts about a week. While most people will recover completely, E. coli poisoning can be very dangerous for children, the elderly and anyone with a weak immune system. In some cases, E. coli 0157:H7 will cause a disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be life-threatening.

With ethanol production predicted to grow, there could be enormous consequences to public health if there is a link between E. coli and distillers’ grain.  For that reason, researchers at Kansas State plan to spend the next several years trying to determine why distiller’s grain makes E. coli more prevalent in cattle.

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