background_fid.jpg
Macomb 91.3fm - Galesburg 90.7fm Keokuk 89.5fm - Burlington 106.3fm
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network. Learn more here.

Beef Industry Not Sold on E. coli Vaccine

ECOLI_vaccine.jpg
Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media
/
Although an E. coli vaccine has been available for five years in the U.S., very few beef feedlots use it.

Thousands of people get sick every year from E. coli bacteria in their food. While the beef industry has gone to great lengths to limit illnesses in meat, the industry has been slow to adopt an E. coli vaccine that could keep people from getting sick.

Ground beef has a track record of causing some serious outbreaks of food illness, like E. Coli O157 H:7. The problem is, when cows carry E. coli bacteria in their gut it’s totally harmless, but if the bacteria gets on your meat and then you undercook it, you could easily end up in the hospital.

Meat companies have been trying to clean up their E. coli problem. Infections are down 30 percent from the late 90s. Still, most E. coli outbreaks are from beef.

An E. coli vaccine has been on the market for years that could reduce the risk of getting sick. It’s not a vaccine for people, it’s a vaccine for cows. But not many cows are getting it.

“I’m not aware of anybody who’s currently giving the vaccine,” said Galen Erickson, a feedlot specialist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.

There are two vaccines. One is sold in the U.S. by Zoetis, and has been around about 5 years. There’s also a Canadian vaccine from a company called Bioniche (now Telesta Therapeutics).

Zoetis would not release sales information for their U.S. vaccine, but a 2011 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found only 2.4 percent of feedlots over 1,000 head of cattle used the vaccine.

Neither vaccine has had many takers even though field trials have been promising. Galen Erickson was part of a group that studied the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“For sure, the vaccine that we worked with, which is Bioniche’s vaccine, is very effective with a 60 percent reduction,” Erickson said. “That’s certainly conclusive that it works.”

ECOLI_Cows.jpg
Credit Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media
/
Strains of E. coli that can be deadly to humans are harmless to cattle. The bacteria in their digestive tracts can be transferred to meat during slaughter.

Erickson says feedlots want to cut E. coli. Some use an anti-microbial feed additive to reduce E. coli numbers. But the vaccines are more effective and Erickson says cattle feeders would use a vaccine if they could afford it.

E. coli vaccines cost $8 - $15 dollars per cow. That may not seem like much, but over time that could swallow up a feedlot’s profits.

“Any time you add even what look like small costs per head, it very quickly takes a sizable chunk out of their profitability,” said Ted Schroeder, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University who recently studied the economics of the E. coli vaccine.

Feeders won’t pay for a vaccine unless they make more money for cattle that carry less E. coli. So far, the big packers won’t pay that premium. They already spend millions combating the bacteria. They sterilize cattle hides to kill pathogens and also test meat before it leaves the plant.

Schroeder says adding a vaccine on top of that isn’t worth it unless there are proven cost savings down the line, like fewer meat recalls.

“The challenge is, I don’t know that anyone knows how much a probability reduction you can get in those recall events, and/or their size, and/or their magnitude by just vaccinating,” Schroeder said. “But it’s on all (the meat packers’) radar screens.”

And it’s not just a concern for meat packers. E. coli from cattle can cross-contaminate fruits and vegetables grown near pastures and feedlots.

“E. coli has become, in a sense, a ubiquitous pathogen,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney, who has sued some of the country’s biggest food makers and retailers.

Marler gives food companies credit for fewer E. coli illnesses, but when it comes to the vaccine he says they’re dragging their feet.

“I don’t think we’re going to see vaccines happening unless there’s some kind of outbreak crisis or litigation crisis that sort of drives the decision making,” Marler said.

Marler plans to add some legal pressure. He has a case right now against Whole Foods and a grass-fed beef ranch in Missouri. Hamburger from the ranch sickened several people and killed an 8 year-old-boy in Massachusetts.

“One of the questions we’re going to be asking is ‘Did you ever consider vaccinating your cows with this vaccine?’” Marler said.

Perhaps using the vaccine was not affordable. But depending on how the lawsuit turns out, companies from grocery stores on down to feeding operations may start to wonder if they can afford not to.