A dozen or so feedlots around the Fort Morgan, CO beef plant owned by Cargill Meat Solutions have been enlisted in a field trial for a vaccine against E. coli O157:H7.

The plan, according to Cargill’s Mark Klein, is to give the vaccine to about 100,000 cattle that will be slaughtered at the Fort Morgan plant between May and September 2010.

feedlot.jpgLarge field tests for vaccines for E. coli O157:H7 are underway on both sides of the border as the Bioniche vaccine is approved for use in Canada and the Epitopix vaccine has the green light in the U.S.

Cargill’s interest in testing is getting attention in beef country.  University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Rod Moxley and David Smith will follow what comes out of the Cargill trials.

In their own tests, the Nebraska researchers have found greater than 90 percent efficacy against colonization, but not the 99.9 percent effectiveness federal regulators want.

The two existing vaccines that have won approvals to date require multiple vaccinations or re-vaccinations, which some see as problematic.

Cargill’s involvement in the tests is seen as important because only a “top-down” vaccine program will be effective, according to observers like Smith.  He says that if only a handful of producers use vaccines, the effectiveness will be lost by the time cattle are co-mingled at the slaughterhouse.

For the two companies with approved vaccines, there is much at stake as they conduct field trials over the economic viability of their products.

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.
Neither 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.

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.