Jul 31, 2009
How to eliminate E.coli O157:H7

Memo to federal food safety officials: Want to protect consumers by eliminating E.coli O157:H7 from the food supply? Then invest in the commercial use of a vaccine for cattle. Then make its use mandatory, but pay most of the vaccine’s cost to cattle producers for the first few years.

Such thoughts are triggered by a report from a special food safety working group set up earlier this year by President Obama.

As reported in July 13’s WLJ, the federal government, based on the group’s findings, will set new standards to try and reduce the incidence of E.coli and Salmonella in food. All very commendable, but the only action regarding E.coli will be to test more in meat plants. The findings made no mention of any pre-harvest measures, such as vaccines for cattle. This seemed curious, given the group declared its first guiding principle is prevention.

E.coli is a beef industry problem. Everyone from ranchers to retailers has an equal responsibility to reduce and eliminate the pathogen. Packers have done just about all they can to remove E.coli from beef. In fact, they have already done far more than their share. They do not create E.coli on cattle, but have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment to remove it. Retailers have done precious little to do the same. Bench trim (beef trimmings put through a grinder) remains a problematic link in the E.coli-beef chain.

That’s why it’s time producers and the federal government stepped up to the plate to focus on pre-harvest measures. Federal assistance in promoting the commercial development and use of vaccines is far more logical than more testing. Reducing the prevalence of E.coli in cattle on the ranch or in the feedlot would not only reduce possible contamination in ground beef, it would reduce it in other foods such as leafy greens. The 2006 contamination of spinach in central California was linked to E.coli contamination by nearby cattle or hogs. It seems so obvious: eliminate the pathogen at source and you eliminate potential contamination of food and water supplies, and thus prevent people from getting sick. I’m amazed someone didn’t take steps after the Jack-inthe-Box tragedy to zero in on what should have been done. Both the beef industry and the federal government have a stake in getting rid of E.coli.

Yet, 16 years after Jack-inthe-Box, Americans are still dying or getting sick because of the pathogen. Although progress seems slow, the industry is edging closer to seeing a commercially tested vaccine.

Epitopix LLC, a Minnesota veterinary pharmaceutical company, in March received a conditional license from USDA to sell its vaccine. It plans to start making it

available to large packers and feedlots this fall as the first step toward fuller commercial use, it says. A vaccine developed by Canadian firm Bioniche Life Sciences is available in Canada but has not yet received a USDA conditional license.

Field studies so far claim that use of a vaccine dramatically reduces the presence of E.coli in feedlot cattle. Scientists at Kansas State University and West Texas A&M conducted studies of the Epitopix vaccine over two years. The most recent study involved 1,300 head in a commercial feedlot, with half injected with the vaccine.

The study showed that vaccinated cattle were 85 percent less likely to excrete E.coli. In the cattle that tested positive, there was a 98 percent reduction in concentration of the pathogen versus non-vaccinated cattle.

If vaccines prove efficacious, which they will need to, the next question is the commingling of vaccinated and non-vaccinated cattle in feedlots and at packing plants. Some say cross-contamination will diminish vaccines’ effectiveness. Others say the question of crosscontamination is overstated.

My feeling is that the best way to tackle the commingling issue is for USDA to require that all cattle be vaccinated. Then there would be no need for feedlots or packers to segregate vaccinated from non-vaccinated cattle to avoid cross-contamination. The best way to overcome producer opposition to mandatory vaccination would be for the federal government to heavily subsidize the cost of vaccination.

Unless that happens, and if vaccination is strictly voluntary, economics will determine the uptake of any commercially proven vaccine.

Epitopix has not set a price for its vaccine but it expects it to be about $2 per dose. Researchers say that for optimal results, cattle need to be vaccinated three times, when they enter a feedlot then after 21 days and another 21 days. This would mean $6 per head and involve chute work that might stress cattle. This also means researchers must focus on developing a vaccine that can be added to feed. The industry is likely to slaughter about 26.7 million steers and heifers this year and 26.5 million in 2010. The latter total would mean a vaccination cost of nearly $160 million. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $2.8 billion the industry lost due to E.coli from 1993 to 2003 in terms of lost demand, packer investments and other costs. Then, of course, there is the tragedy of families losing their loved ones, often small children.

It’s way past time industry and government got serious about eliminating E.coli at source. — Steve Kay

(Steve Kay is Editor/Publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, an industry newsletter published at P.O. Box 2533, Petaluma, CA, 94953; 707/765-1725. Kay’s Korner appears exclusively in WLJ.)