USDA investment in research pays off with E. coli defenses

USDA investment in research pays off with E. coli defenses

A $25 million research project that has already produced improved detection and eradication techniques for toxic E. coli is beginning its seventh year with the continued goal of reducing public health risks.

Scientists and educators at 18 institutions have been working on the project, funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was awarded in 2011. The investment has already generated data for 77 refereed journal articles for use by anyone interested in combatting the potentially deadly Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) strains that are so prevalent in beef.

“The researcher’s findings will save lives and stop people from getting sick,” said Isabel Walls, national program leader for food safety with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “And there is a substantial economic benefit, not only in reducing the cost of foodborne illness and associated productivity losses, but the cost of food recalls, lost brand reputation and business failures.”

Though E. coli is widespread in cattle and people, harmful strains can be difficult to detect, according to a news release from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where research project director and professor of medicine and biomedical sciences Rodney Moxley is based.

The E. coli O157:H7 strain was first linked to food poisoning after an outbreak involving McDonald’s restaurants in 1982. In 1993, more than 730 people became ill and four died after eating hamburger patties tainted with the Shiga toxin-producing bacteria.

The federal government declared O157:H7 and six other strains to be adulterants when present in beef and industry did much to address the problem. Those seven strains, plus another that caused an outbreak in Germany and other parts of Europe, have been investigated by Moxley and the other researchers.

“The whole goal is to reduce the occurrence and public health risks from Shiga toxin-producing strains in beef,” Moxley said in the university news release. “These tests we’re developing are a big step forward, but there’s still a lot of progress to be made.”

Moxley and scientists from Kansas State University, Nebraska, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston are using genetic and immunological science to quickly detect the presence of toxic strains of E. coli in cattle and beef. The new methods and reagents could be applied to human patients as well. The goal is to identify illness-causing contaminants before they lead to food recalls or make people sick.

Developments expected in the coming year include the commercialization of the researchers’ tests so that industry will have access to them.

The scientists also are working on packing-house interventions, such as organic acid sprays, high-pressure processing to kill bacteria and electrostatic sprays that enable antimicrobials to more efficiently cling to meat surfaces.

In addition to paying for the hard science, the USDA grant has also paid for experts at Nebraska and Kansas State to develop educational materials for teachers and beef industry workers. The project has also provided support for high school students to learn about food safety careers and supported 80 internships for college students.