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Cattle vaccines may cut risk, but costs would increase

Sunday, February 14, 2010 | 4:34 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — How much are you willing to pay for a hamburger?

OK. Now how much more would you pay to drastically reduce but never fully eliminate the long odds that it might send you to the hospital?

With a new vaccine for cattle, the beef industry may dramatically cut the risk that a potentially deadly bacteria finds its way to your dinner plate. Yet it's unclear how, or if, that cost might be passed to the consumer.

"We're not looking at food safety to use it as a competitive advantage," said Mark Klein, a spokesman for beef packing and wholesaling company Cargill.

Put another way, saying your beef is less likely than the other guy's to carry a cow-dung-dwelling pathogen isn't the most appetizing way to sell meat.

Meanwhile, Cargill is trying out the vaccine on 100,000 animals that will start heading to slaughter in May. For now, the company is bearing its cost even as the medicine undergoes more scientific trials under the gaze of a Kansas State University researcher.

What's unsettled is whether the cost, between $3 and $10 per cow, will be paid by packers, feed yard operators, ranchers or none of the above.

"Those are all unknowns," said Michelle Rossman, the director of beef safety at National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

If no sector picks up the cost, a chance at safer beef might be lost.

Perhaps no food pathogen is as vexing to the beef industry as E. coli 0157:H7.

In January, it led to the recall of 864,000 pounds of beef from Huntington Meat Packing in Oklahoma. That followed a Christmas Eve recall of 248,000 pounds in Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan and Washington state shipped by National Steak and Poultry.

In 2009, the United States saw 13 recalls of beef products, as well as three deaths and dozens of illnesses.

It could be argued that the threat isn't much to give consumers pause. After all, Americans snarf up roughly 28 billion pounds of beef a year, and only a fraction about one in 100,000 get evenly mildly sick. Even these illnesses can be dodged if the meat is sufficiently cooked.

Still, the consequences of tainted meat are profound. A packer can hardly afford the cost of a recall. Each misstep threatens to undermine consumer confidence in beef.

The bacteria incubate in the gastrointestinal tracts and feces of cattle. Inevitably, those infected droppings end up on the hides.

The industry has gone to great lengths for safety. After slaughter, cattle typically go through a high-pressure spray and then, once hide and head are removed, the carcass is steam pasteurized.

Still, E. coli too often slips through even in the most sophisticated packing plants.

The industry has experimented with feed and probiotics bacteria that are healthy for the cow's digestion and that might crowd out E. coli. Results are encouraging, but not overwhelming. And they require a consistency in feeding hard to maintain from one crowded feed yard to another.

That's driven researchers toward a vaccine. Government approval was tangled for years because it fell into a niche that agricultural bureaucracy rarely deals with a medicine for livestock that doesn't improve animal health (E. coli doesn't make cattle sick).

Now two vaccines are in play. One, because it comes from a Canadian firm, is not yet tried in the United States. The other, made by Minnesota firm Epitopix, was granted conditional licensing meaning the government demands more data even as the vaccine has been OK'd for butcher-bound cattle.

"In a perfect world," said K-State veterinarian and cattle specialist Daniel Thomson, "you don't want to see any E. coli" after a vaccination. If it does show up, he said, the hope is that the levels in the cattle feces will be low.

Overseeing thousands of tests and relying on graduate students to meticulously collect samples of fresh cow pies in Kansas and Nebraska, he finds the Epitopix vaccine widely effective.

E. coli spikes in the summer, but through the seasons it can be found in 1 percent to 30 percent of cattle.

Thomson said the vaccine cut infection rates by 86 percent. Of the minority carrying the bug, the bacterial load dropped by 98 percent.

No one is guaranteeing an end to E. coli in beef. And views are conflicted on what other things might guard against the bacteria.

Some consumers have turned to grass-fed beef from cattle that fatten on the pasture instead of spending their final months in feed yards. Besides being promoted as more humane treatment, it's also marketed as safer than conventional meat because the feeding methods creates acid in a cow's stomach.

But some research contradicts that assumption. Even the manure mess of a feedlot might not pose the particular danger that many associate with industrial agriculture.

David R. Smith, a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Nebraska, said studies show E. coli levels on the hides of cattle are actually higher in pasture than in the feedlot. That may be because feces is methodically swept from pens before flies can transport the bacteria to the backs of cattle. It might also be because cattle are more likely to roll on the ground and their feces when grazing.

So he sees great promise in the vaccine. Although consumers are sometimes anxious about hormones and antibiotics given to cattle, Smith said, even the organic market voices little objection to vaccines.

"This looks like an effective tool," he said. "The catch is what will get everybody to use it?"


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