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Fighting E. coli At The Source

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 21, 2006

One of the problems with all the industry food safety efforts is that they are fundamentally defensive. This evil E. coli 0157:H7 is out in the environment and we, as an industry, are going to put up fences, test water, test product, etc., in the hope of stopping it from getting through.

We may have to play that way but, fundamentally, it is a loser’s game. We have to be perfect every time and the pathogen only has to get through once.

Reminds one of the dilemma in fighting terrorism.

Lately, however, there has been a switch in perspective with people looking, more and more, to do something that will achieve safety but without requiring perfection.

Here at the Pundit, we inquired as to whether E. coli couldn’t be perceived as a form of pollution with legal restrictions against those who would introduce it into the environment.

We also looked at irradiation as a way to introduce a “kill step” into fresh-cut produce.

Another option may be research in Canada of a new vaccine for cattle that could significantly reduce the level of E. coli 0157:H7 in the cattle:

Canadian health researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Saskatchewan have developed a vaccine that significantly reduces the level of Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (E. coli) in cattle. The vaccine will help to reduce the dramatic economic and healthcare costs associated with E. coli 0157, the toxic microbe responsible for hamburger disease, recalls of contaminated meat, and water contamination.

The team’s findings are published in today’s on-line edition of the scientific journal Vaccine. The experimental vaccine was created by UBC microbiologist and bacterial diseases expert Dr. Brett Finlay and Dr. Andy Potter, Associate Director (Research) at the University of Saskatchewan Vaccine & Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO).The research was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Canadian Bacterial Diseases Network of Centres of Excellence, Bioniche Life Sciences Inc., and the Beef Industry Development Fund.

“I had studied this disease for years when it suddenly occurred to me to vaccinate cows instead of children,” said Dr. Finlay, UBC’s Peter Wall Distinguished Professor and a CIHR Distinguished Investigator. “There are no treatments for this disease in humans so I’m thrilled that the cattle vaccine works, and works well.”

“This work is particularly exciting to us because of the impact it will have on reducing human disease,” said Dr. Alan Bernstein, President of CIHR. “I am proud that CIHR funded the basic research that led to the discovery of the vaccine. The end result will have profound benefits for global health since it will significantly reduce the bacteria at the source, resulting in a significant reduction in food and water contamination.”

Dr. Potter worked with Dr. Finlay to take Finlay’s discovery of bacterial components required for E. coli to colonize its host and turn it into a vaccine.

“This type of E. coli doesn’t actually cause disease in cattle, but it can be deadly to humans. Vaccinating cattle in order to protect humans is a different twist on vaccine usage. If this vaccine is successful, it will be a significant development in the reduction of risk to humans by vaccinating animals,” said Dr. Potter.

The study tested the vaccine under both experimental conditions and conditions of natural exposure. For the latter, researchers tracked E. coli prevalence in 192 vaccinated and unvaccinated steers through 115 days on feed at the University of Nebraska. Vaccination reduced E. coli prevalence an average of 59 per cent compared with unvaccinated cattle. This data builds on earlier experimental tests that demonstrated decreased shedding of E. coli in vaccinated cattle over the unvaccinated cattle.

While E. coli prevalence varied in both vaccinated and unvaccinated steers throughout the study, it was consistently lower among vaccinated steers.

The E. coli vaccine is being developed by a strategic alliance composed of UBC, the Alberta Research Council (ARC), the U of S’s VIDO and Bioniche Life Sciences Inc., which is responsible for worldwide commercialization of the vaccine.

Clinical studies and field trials in Canada and the United States are continuing to establish the efficacy of the E. coli vaccine. Currently, alliance partners are collaborating on process development activities to facilitate manufacturing scale-up of the vaccine.

Recent events throughout Canada have highlighted the dangers of E. coli. Due to this bacterium, approximately 50,000 North Americans get sick each year and 500 of them die.

In May 2000, tragedy struck Walkerton, Ontario, after E. coli 0157 from cow fecal matter contaminated the town’s drinking water. Beyond the human toll, the economic cost to meat producers has been estimated at $5 billion annually.

There has already been a lot of news coverage on this discovery. And others in the U.S. have been working on a similar approach.

But we can’t get too excited as five years ago some were saying we could have a commercial vaccine of this type in three to six months.

Still, the notion of fighting E. coli 0157:H7 at the source and through kill steps makes a lot more sense than fighting over fence heights.

The Pundit hates playing defense.

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