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From small ranchers to large packers to U.S. dinner tables, the beef industry is a gigantic multi-billion dollar business. Whether you eat it or you don’t, beef is what’s for dinner, what’s for lunch and what’s for breakfast on thousands of Americans’ plates daily.Harvest Public Media takes a look at America’s beef industry, examining what goes in to our meat. We’re looking at the safety of the meat in our grocery stores and who funds the scientific research on the industry. We’re diving into what goes in to breeding the highest-quality beef, the potential environmental impact of the way conventional cattle are raised, and what might happen if the beef industry continues to consolidate.You can view and hear more on Big Beef on Harvest Public Media's website.

Beef Industry Not Sold On E. Coli Vaccine

Grant Gerlock
Harvest Public Media
Research technician, Bradley Boyd, tags a steer that just arrived at the University of Nebraska Lincoln feedlot near Mead, Nebraska.

Thousands of people get sick every year from E. coli bacteria in their food. While the beef industry has gone to great lengths to limit illnesses in meat, the industry has been slow to adopt an E. coli vaccine that could keep people from getting sick.

Ground beef has a track record of causing some serious outbreaks of food illness, like E. Coli O157 H:7. The problem is, when cows carry E. coli bacteria in their gut it’s totally harmless, but if the bacteria gets on your meat and then you undercook it, you could easily end up in the hospital.

Meat companies have been trying to clean up their E. coli problem. Infections are down 30 percent from the late 90s. Still, most E. coli outbreaks are from beef.

An E. coli vaccine has been on the market for years that could reduce the risk of getting sick. It’s not a vaccine for people, it’s a vaccine for cows. But not many cows are getting it.

“I’m not aware of anybody who’s currently giving the vaccine,” said Galen Erickson, a feedlot specialist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.

There are two vaccines. One is sold in the U.S. by Zoetis, and has been around about 5 years. There’s also a Canadian vaccine from a company called Bioniche (now Telesta Therapeutics).

Zoetis would not release sales information for their U.S. vaccine, but a 2011 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found only 2.4 percent of feedlots over 1,000 head of cattle used the vaccine.

Neither vaccine has had many takers even though field trials have been promising. Galen Erickson was part of a group that studied the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“For sure, the vaccine that we worked with, which is Bioniche’s vaccine, is very effective with a 60 percent reduction,” Erickson said. “That’s certainly conclusive that it works.”

Erickson says feedlots want to cut E. coli. Some use an anti-microbial feed additive to reduce E. coli numbers. But the vaccines are more effective and Erickson says cattle feeders would use a vaccine if they could afford it.

E. coli vaccines cost $8 - $15 dollars per cow. That may not seem like much, but over time that could swallow up a feedlot’s profits.

“Any time you add even what look like small costs per head, it very quickly takes a sizable chunk out of their profitability,” said Ted Schroeder, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University who recently studied the economics of the E. coli vaccine.

Feeders won’t pay for a vaccine unless they make more money for cattle that carry less E. coli. So far, the big packers won’t pay that premium. They already spend millions combating the bacteria. They sterilize cattle hides to kill pathogens and also test meat before it leaves the plant.

Schroeder says adding a vaccine on top of that isn’t worth it unless there are proven cost savings down the line, like fewer meat recalls.

“The challenge is, I don’t know that anyone knows how much a probability reduction you can get in those recall events, and/or their size, and/or their magnitude by just vaccinating,” Schroeder said. “But it’s on all (the meat packers’) radar screens.”

And it’s not just a concern for meat packers. E. coli from cattle can cross-contaminate fruits and vegetables grown near pastures and feedlots.

“E. coli has become, in a sense, a ubiquitous pathogen,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney, who has sued some of the country’s biggest food makers and retailers.

Marler gives food companies credit for fewer E. coli illnesses, but when it comes to the vaccine he says they’re dragging their feet.

“I don’t think we’re going to see vaccines happening unless there’s some kind of outbreak crisis or litigation crisis that sort of drives the decision making,” Marler said.

Marler plans to add some legal pressure. He has a case right now against Whole Foods and a grass-fed beef ranch in Missouri. Hamburger from the ranch sickened several people and killed an 8 year-old-boy in Massachusetts.

“One of the questions we’re going to be asking is ‘Did you ever consider vaccinating your cows with this vaccine?’” Marler said.

Perhaps using the vaccine was not affordable. But depending on how the lawsuit turns out, companies from grocery stores on down to feeding operations may start to wonder if they can afford not to.

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