By Steve Cornett
Another week, another needless E. coli O157:H7 problem.
Look at the comments that follow this Washington Post article.
You don’t want people saying that kind of stuff about your product. Oh? Right. This wasn’t “your” product. This was probably some old cow that needed the needle and a bunch of sauce to be tasty. Probably, given the nature of the bacteria involved, she was a dairy cow.
So you and I, our hands are clean, right? Wrong, not one of those Washington Post commenters can tell the difference in the product from Oklahoma and the product from your herd.
We don’t need to do this. We’ve known for years that there is a vaccine that will virtually eliminate the shedding of the bacteria that’s causing all this mayhem. Here’s an old report on the vaccine offered by Epitopix.
That company’s vaccine was approved for research purposes last spring and shows great promise of reducing the challenge facing packers in keeping O157:H7 out of their product.
Dr. James D. Sandstrom, general manager of Epitopix, told me Wednesday that the product protects 65% to 70% of vaccinated cattle from showing positive for the bacteria and, more importantly, reduces the number of bacteria shed—and thus a threat to the food supply—by more than 99.9%.
And remember, please, that it’s just like your daddy told you years ago. A little cow poop never hurt anybody. It’s the bacteria in there that causes the problem. No bacteria, no problem.
Let me do this math here right quick. Say we’ve had 50 recalls in the last two years, so if you reduced that by 99.9%, that would mean you would have had, rounded off, something like ½ of one outbreak.
Cargill, (and bless that Big Corporation for all it has tried and adopted in the effort to make safer beef) has a big project going to see how effective the vaccine is in real life. They’ve go about a hundred thousand cattle on feed vaccinated and will see as they head for harvest how it performs.
All the research indicates it will be an effective string in the safety net that packers—and cattle producers—must employ to keep these recalls at a minimum.
The industry—make that the packers and the beef checkoff—has made great strides in making beef safer. Cattle producers have done nothing. Until now, there really hasn’t been anything they could do.
The vaccine will change that, and we must do more. Rely on packers to always keep their beef clean anymore than we can count on elevators to keep rat pellets and bird dropping out of the flour and soya. Mistakes happen.
We can’t rely on consumers to cook meat to a safe temperature. Partly because they’re—well, make that WE’RE, your reporter being a fancier of rare hamburger—too dumb and careless.
For that matter, I’m not sure we really want consumers to have to cook the taste out of their beef to feel safe. The pork people sure wish folks trusted their product enough to eat it while it still has some flavor.
Nobody’s sure how this disjointed industry of ours will adopt this new technology. There’s not much reason for me to vaccinate my calves in the feedlot or you to vaccinate your dairy culls. It’s no hide off us if some consumer gets sick eating our beef, is it? We’ll never even know.
That’s a problem for the packer. So I suppose he’ll have to foot that bill.
Or, more likely, require us to. And, by the way, while Dr. Sandstrom hasn’t priced his product publicly, it may take three doses at something like $3 a pop. This won’t be cheap and it has to happen well before harvest—long before packers own the cattle.
You’ll note in the research above that there was, at that time, no “best management practice” feeders could employ to fight E. coli.
It looks like a vaccine might offer one.
I’m no lawyer, so I can’t even guess what that might mean in terms of liability. Maybe we should check with these folks: Marler Clark, a law firm that makes a habit of finding people to blame for these outbreaks.
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at email@example.com.