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Rise in E. Coli Meat Recalls Might be Linked to Increased Use of Ethanol Byproduct as Cattle Feed

Dec 10, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP A spike in E. coli meat recalls and outbreaks could be explained, in part, by the way some cattle are fed, new research says.   According to a study conducted at Kansas State University, cattle fed with distiller’s grain, a byproduct of Ethanol production, are more susceptible to the E. Coli 0157:H7 strain that can cause a sometimes deadly disease in human beings.

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.

Recalls of E. coli tainted meat are double what they were last year, and have affected meat processors large and small.  The 67-year old Topps Meat Company filed for bankruptcy 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 outbreak keeps coming.

As the US looks for alternatives to oil and gasoline, ethanol – a fuel made from grains – production has skyrocketed.   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 a source of feed for their livestock.  For this reason, ethanol factories are often built next to feed lots.

Distiller’s grain is a good source of animal feed, however, scientist at Kansas State University say it could be putting the public at risk.   Through three rounds of testing, they 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 for the sudden surge in E. coli meat recalls and outbreaks.

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.  But one thing is certain – it is highly unlikely that ranchers will stop using this cheap, readily available source of feed anytime soon.

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