Cattle vaccine offers hope for curbing risk of E. coli infections

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 — at between $3 and $10 per cow — will be paid by packers, feedyard 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.

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