Beef safety advancing, more to do

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Feb 21, 2005
by WLJ
At a forum on beef safety at the Cattle Industry Annual Convention and Trade Show in San Antonio earlier this month, food safety experts led a discussion of recent advancements made in BSE prevention and E.coli reduction.
A common theme among the speakers was that while the beef industry can be very proud of the advancements it has made in improving food safety, it must continually strive for improvement.
Ongoing beef safety research is funded by America’s Beef Producers through the $1-per-head Beef Checkoff Program. It is coordinated on behalf of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and state beef councils by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which serves as one of the Beef Board’s contractors for checkoff-funded programs.
While bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has received heavy news coverage since a single case was confirmed in the United States in December 2003, E.coli remains a concern for the beef industry and its consumers. Guy Loneragan, B.V. Sc. Ph.D., provided an up-to-date look at pre-harvest research efforts addressing intervention development and approval of management steps in reducing the incidence of E. coli. Dr. Loneragan is an assistant professor of Beef Cattle Health Management at West Texas A & M University.
“The beef industry has worked hard and has had many successes in reducing E. coli, helping to maintain consumer confidence in beef,” Loneragan said. “In fact, illness rates attributed to E. coli have almost reached the 2010 goal of 1 case per 100,000 people.”
But Loneragan emphasized that the industry still faces challenges in reducing the presence of E.coli. He feels the industry needs to examine pre-harvest intervention options, especially with regard to hide and feces. Several pre-harvest intervention options are being evaluated. A lacto bacillus-based product that is added to feed has significantly reduced the number of animals testing positive for E. coli on both the hide and feces. Another intervention option being researched is vaccination. Studies have shown cattle that are vaccinated are much less likely to carry the bacteria, but it is unclear how effectively the vaccine reduces E. coli on the hides. Neomycin is an antibiotic not labeled for E. coli control. However, Loneragen said that two large feedlot studies have shown that it reduces E. coli in the feces by 98 to 100 percent, and in hides by 85 to 90 percent.
Recent strides in reducing E. coli O157 in beef carcasses are also among the ongoing checkoff-funded research efforts highlighted in Building Demand through Research, the research annual report published recently by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. A complete copy of “Building Demand through Research” is available at
At the same issues forum, Dr.Terry McElwain provided an overview of the BSE surveillance program. McElwain is a professor and the executive director with Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
McElwain reported that the goal of the program, which was initiated in June of 2004, is to test 268,500 animals in a 12-18 month period. The target population consists of animals showing some type of disorder that has compatible, clinical signs of BSE. Examples include central nervous cases, condemned cattle and downer cattle. The number to be tested is based on an estimated 464,000 possible animals that fit into the target population. By completing this number of tests, the industry can state with 100 percent confidence that five or fewer infected animals exist in the nation’s cattle population.
Initially, seven labs are performing BSE testing. Biorad rapid ELISA assay was chosen as the test, in part because results can be produced in one day. All lab results are tracked through sample accession––an automated process that avoids any recording mistakes. Negative results are reported electronically to the NAHLN database and to USDA.
McElwain explained that if the test yields a single well reactor, it is immediately rerun in duplicate. If it turns up negative, no more testing of that animal is needed. If the second test yields a reactive well, the sample is sent to the NADC for confirmatory testing. As of Jan. 30, more than 213,000 samples have been taken and analyzed, about 1,700 per day.
Dr. Don Knowles, a professor at Washington State University, also discussed BSE risk, current research and infectious dose levels at the issues forum.
“It is important that the industry and those involved in BSE research and related policy remain vigilant, but the news concerning BSE is currently positive. Transmission of BSE is understood and appropriate control practices are in place. Therefore, BSE and vCJD should continue their decline. A note of caution is necessary, however. We must remember that when dealing with biology, change and unpredictability is the rule,” Knowles said. — WLJ