Whether new vaccines against E. coli O157:H7 can work well enough to be economically viable could be decided by new large field trials that are just getting underway.

Two vaccines are in trial.  Willmar, MN-based Epitopix gained approval about ten months ago for sales of its vaccine against E. coli in the United States.  Claiming to be first to gain approval, however, is Ontario-based Bioniche Life Sciences, with a vaccine approved for sale in Canada.

cattle-ecoli-vaccine.jpgNeither company is promising their vaccine alone will eliminate E. coli. As Bioniche says, “Effective pathogen management consists of multiple interventions against a pathogen. The vaccine is part of a multiple hurdle approach, along with existing methods for the reduction of bacterial contaminants. These methods include hide washing, steam cabinets, etc. in the meat processing facility.”

But cutting down on the number of cattle with E. coli O157:H7 by 65 to 75 percent would show progress toward the beef industry’s stated goal of eradicating the bacterium from the meat supply.

The tests getting underway should go a long way toward finding out if that’s possible   Cargill, the largest producer of beef in the United States, is funding and coordinating one test with 100,000 cattle.   Epitopix tests of the vaccine in the U.S. will involve about 300,000.

Because of the cost, the vaccine makers are expecting initial users will target where they are used.

“The decision to vaccinate will be made by the individual cattle producer, says Bioniche.  “It is expected that processors and retailers will also have an interest in adoption. There are approximately 115 million cattle in North America, 25 million of which are conditioned on feedlots. Feedlot cattle producers are expected to be the primary adopters of vaccination, with other cattle segments, such as the dairy industry and cow/calf operations to follow.”

Bioniche posts its charge for the vaccine on their website: $3 per dose.  However, each animal will require two or three doses, raising the total cost per head to as high as $9.  Many cattlemen see that as a profit-eating amount.

E. coli O157:H7 is blamed for 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths in the United States annually. In the last two years, about 42 million pounds of beef has been recalled for E. coli O157:H7 contamination.  E. coli in its cattle herd costs Canada $63 million a year, according to one study.

Vaccines for E. coli have been in the research and development phase since 2001.  Since the purpose of the vaccine is not to improve the animal’s health–E. coli bacteria is harmless when attached to the hindgut of a cow–there was some regulatory confusion about jurisdiction.

Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) were involved in this issue before jurisdiction was determined to be under the USDA.