Two (Imperfect) Tools in the Fight Against E. Coli


Did you know there is a cattle vaccine that “aids in the reduction of shedding of E. coli O157”? If your first thought is, “Then why do we still have E. coli contamination?” you’re not alone. The fact is, although Canadian beef producers have been instrumental in supporting work to find a solution to E. coli contamination, the registered vaccine is not a cure-all.

According to
“The Beef Cattle Research Council also funded some of the early research that led to the development of a vaccine that aids in the reduction of E. coli O157:H7 shedding in cattle. The vaccine is licensed for use in Canada, requiring three doses and a 60 day withdrawal period before slaughter. It typically costs $3 per dose. The vaccine has been shown to reduce shedding, but reduced shedding in live animals may not sufficiently reduce E. coli O157:H7 contamination on meat products….It is also well known that not all cattle respond equally to a vaccination program.”

And therein lies the problem: the vaccine is not universally effective. What’s more, our current feedlot-based system allows for a first vaccination relatively easily, but the second and third vaccine doses would require sorting and handling each cow multiple times, increasing stress on the cow and providing opportunity for injury.

There is another proposed solution: irradiating ground beef (ground beef has the highest risk of E. coli contamination). Irradiating food is done in nearly 50 countries around the world, and is used to kill bacteria, virus, insects and other undesirable living things on and in food. Food that has been irradiated does not become radioactive, as is often thought, however some have concerns about the process. Canada does not allow irradiation of meat products at this time.

So where does this leave us? A vaccine exists but isn’t a complete answer — if it were nearly 100% effective I’m sure the industry would figure out the best, lowest-stress inducing way to give the three doses required, but at the current efficacy level, it’s a non-issue. Irradiating meat would kill E. coli, yes, but it’s a) not allowed and b) carries negative connotations, however misinformed.

Mark Klassen, director of technical services, with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association says, “The ultimate goal of the Canadian beef and cattle industry is to reduce and, if possible, eliminate E. coli related illness associated with beef products.” This food safety issue is one the Canadian cattle industry takes seriously and is working on, as it has been for years. For now, that’s the best we can do.

In the meantime, as discussed in yesterday’s post, there are many things you can do right at home to keep you and your family safe from E. coli.

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