The U.S.D.A. just announced that it has approved an E. coli vaccine for cattle. They say that like it’s a good thing. But really, all this vaccine is doing is treating the symptoms rather than actually doing anything to solve the bigger issue of a food system gone completely awry. It’s the equivalent of a restaurant in Mexico telling you to go ahead and eat the lettuce but giving you an Immodium A-D chaser, just in case.
Granted, the vaccine isn’t all bad if it leads to fewer E. coli infections, which affect 70,000 people each year in the U.S. But really, the only true winners in this are the beef industry people who hope to make more money by telling us their beef is E. coli free.
What the vaccine does not do is get to the heart of the real problem, which is the American feedlot industry. Feedlots handle about 88 percent of the beef that Americans buy, and feedlots just happen to be breeding grounds for E. coli. Every cow has E. coli bacteria, but one strain, E. coli O-157, is the bad E. coli that makes humans sick. It also happens to grow really well in the stomachs of cows who are fed grain, the staple diet at feedlots, as opposed to cows that eat a more natural diet of grass.
Eating a cow that had E. coli O-157 in his belly won’t make you sick, unless for some reason you were actually eating fecal matter from said cow, or cow shit to put it bluntly. That’s the other problem with feedlots. Cows stand knee-deep (do cows have knees?) in poop at these places. They go to the slaughterhouse covered in crap, and if they aren’t cleaned off real good, then poop gets into the beef, and if it’s E. coli infected poop, a lot of people are going to get really sick.
What really freaks me out about the vaccine, is what if it gives people at the slaughterhouses a false sense of security? What if they think, “Well, hey, this poop isn’t going to kill anyone now, so if I don’t get the cow as clean as I used to, no biggie.” To quote Betty Fussell in her book Raising Steaks: “Sterilized shit is still shit.”
So lets review: The E. coli vaccine is merely a band-aid. It is not a solution to the bigger problem, which is cattle raised on filthy feedlots. The only winners in this scenario are the beef producers who are hoping to sell more beef because it’s “safe”. The farmers don’t win, because they won’t get any more money for their cattle when they sell them to the feedlots. The cattle sure don’t win, because they’re still living their miserable feedlot existence. And consumers don’t win because the USDA just fed us a shit sandwich and called it a victory.