Food Liability and Biofuels Law Alert: Distillers Grains Linked to E. coli O157:H7

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.

Past studies show that diet likely influences the physiological environment of cattle gastrointestinal tracts and the viability of E. coli O157:H7. The Kansas State study utilized a number of feed schedules and diets, with the presence of distillers grains as the variable under investigation. Samples were collected weekly from each pen for 12 weeks, and results indicated a positive association between distillers grains and E. coli O157:H7 prevalence.

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.

Users and producers of distillers grains should pay close attention. 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. Make sure that your liability insurance policies provide coverage for injuries caused by organic pathogens such as E. coli.

For more information, contact:

Rita V. Latsinova at or (206) 386-7613

Lois O. Rosenbaum at or (503) 294-9293
Jeremy D. Sacks at or (503) 294-9649
Jason A. Johns at or (503) 294-9618

Mark S. Geston at or (208) 387-4291

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