In a study whose results will likely have national significance, West Virginia will examine the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef in its state.

In a news release, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) Regulatory and Environmental Affairs Division said it had received a one-year, $220,000 grant through the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) to study E. coli.

WVDA microbiologist Amie Minor, who wrote the grant application, said that while the program is unique to West Virginia, it should give public health officials an “idea of the background level and prevalence of this particular pathogen.”

E. coli O157:H7 is a virulent form of bacteria that can cause symptoms ranging from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to kidney failure and death.

“This particular strain can produce Shiga toxin … that is not as easy to ‘cook out’ as other pathogens. It can definitely be a very pathogenic bacteria that needs to be taken seriously,” said Minor.

FERN, which provided the grant, is a joint venture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration and federal, state and local laboratories throughout the country. Its mission is to integrate all the nation’s food-testing laboratories into a network capable of responding to emergencies — accidental or intentional — involving biological, chemical, or radiological contamination of food.

During an emergency, FERN-member laboratories would handle the surge of laboratory work needed to identify and contain a foodborne pathogen.