Thousands of people get sick every year from E. coli bacteria in their food. The beef industry has gone to great lengths to limit illnesses in meat. But 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 O157 gets on your meat and then you undercook it, you could easily end up in the hospital.
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.
Research technician, Bradley Boyd, tags a steer that just arrived at the University of Nebraska Lincoln feedlot near Mead, Neb. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)
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.”
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 per cow. That may not seem like much, but over time that could swallow up a feedlot’s profits.
“Anytime 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 have 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?’”
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.