Could a Vaccination for Cattle Protect Us From Deadly E. coli?

It might cost agri-business some money, but scientists say it's possible.

(I Man 10N/ Flickr)

Sep 19, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

What if E. coli could never make another person sick, or kill another child?

It’s been 20 years since the tragic Jack in the Box E.coli outbreak that killed four children, sickened 700 and added the dangerous bacteria to the American lexicon forever.

And it was E. coli that killed two-year old Kevin Kowalcyk after he developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome after he ate a hamburger. E. coli struck again, this time lurking in spinach, and caused the national outbreak in 2006 that killed three people and sickened 200 more.

Scientists believe a new cow vaccine means cattle could be cleared of E. coli, which would ultimately do more to protect the over 63,000 Americans who get sick from the pathogen every year, most of whom go undiagnosed.

While the government and the beef industry have made great strides in reducing the threat of E. coli in our food stream, the fact is, the deadly pathogen still appears regularly. Just take a quick scan of the USDA’s current recall list for proof.

According to a new study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, not only does such a vaccine exist—it’s highly effective, and could reduce the number of human cases of E. coli by 85 percent.

It’s a vaccination that’s been in the works for some time. Part of the delay in adoption of its widespread use is that it fell in a gray area of authority. For a veterinary drug to be used on animals—it must show that animal health is improved. But E. coli doesn’t harm cattle. It’s simply another bacteria in their guts. When it reaches humans, that same pathogen can become deadly.

Lyndsay Cole, a spokesperson with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says at first there was discussion over who would regulate these types of vaccines when it doesn’t affect animal health—the USDA or the FDA.

“The two centers met, and ultimately decided this is under the purview of the USDA,” she says. And in 2009, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak issued a conditional license for its use.

Another reason could be money. It takes multiple vaccinations, which can add significant costs.

“If you’re buying for large herds and you have to give multiple doses, it’s a very big cost,” says Michele Jay-Russell, a veterinarian and food safety specialist at the Western Center for Food Safety at University of California, Davis.

Getting E. coli out of the guts of cows may also mean reducing its occurrence on fresh produce.

“A vaccine is a great idea – not so much for meat production, but for environmental contamination,” says Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety attorney. “It’s going to help reduce the bacterial load in the slaughter house, and reduce it from the hide of the cow – where the meat gets contaminated, but I think the biggest bang for the buck is reducing that load in the environment which is good for the leafy green industry and the water supply.”

Conversations about the vaccine should not be confused with the recent news about routine antibiotic use in meat production.

“A vaccine is meant to boost the immune system to prevent an infection,” says Jay-Russell. “So if a cow is vaccinated from E. coli, and it swallowed grass or hay where it was present, the bacteria would die off and wouldn’t live in the gut. An antibiotic, on the other hand, is providing a treatment that would kill it, but it could come back again.”

David Renter, associate professor of epidemiology at Kansas State University published a study last August on the vaccine in a large-scale feedlot setting, says it is indeed effective.

“There’s no question anymore – it works. Our study shows that pretty dramatically, and we used very conservative estimates,” he says. “Based on most of the studies that have been done, you can conclude that nearly every herd in the U.S.—whether it’s farm or feedlot—have E. coli. Not every animal in the herd will have it, but it’s hard to know which do or don’t.”

So why isn’t anyone championing it’s mandatory and widespread use?

“Widespread adoption would be very costly, and while the beef industry wants to do everything it can to improve food safety, they may say that that money could be used to do other inventions in the plant,” says Renter.

And, as Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia told Health Day—farmers aren’t vaccinating cattle against E.coli because cattle don’t get sick from the bacteria.

But we do, which we think makes this a very important public health conversation, not a farming one.