In January, Pfizer Animal Health began marketing a new vaccine with the power to reduce the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in beef cows by 85 percent. One would think that such a miracle drug would be quickly and widely adopted by the meat industry, but so far only a handful of cattle farms are using it.

cattlevaccine-featured.jpgSo what’s stopping this vaccine from becoming part of the standard procedure for reducing E. coli contamination in meat?

Not surprisingly, given the lagging economy, the biggest barrier to date is money. The vaccine, as approved by FDA, currently requires 3 doses, which at $2.50 a shot plus the cost of manual labor comes out to about $10 per animal.

In an industry that weighed in with almost 94 million head of cattle in 2010, and slaughters 35 million each year, that’s no small expense. 

Pfizer is working hard to overcome this hurdle by partnering with the meat industry to develop a 2-shot version of the vaccine, which would bring its cost down to around $7 a head.  And while this improvement would indeed make the vaccine more affordable, the bill still won’t be a small one.   

“Probably the biggest question that we can’t answer yet is who is going to pay that cost, whether it’s $7 or $10,” said Dr. Richard Raymond, former Undersecretary for Food Safety for USDA, in an interview with Food Safety News. “That’s probably where the debate will come, and that’s probably got to be resolved before we see it widely used,” he said. 

So far, the dilemma of who will absorb the cost remains unsolved, Raymond says. Will it be packers, as a way to assure consumers their meat is safe, or grinders wanting to protect themselves from blame in the case of an outbreak, or will feed lots foot the bill as a way to make their product more marketable?

Raymond has a guess: “My thought is that eventually the large packers are going to absorb the cost of this, but I don’t know that,” he says.

Indeed Pfizer is currently working with some of the top meat moguls, who are putting big bucks behind finding the best way to integrate the vaccine into the industry.

“You get someone wanting to partner and say, ‘You know what? We’d feel more comfortable if you’d utilize the E. coli vaccine with SRP®,” said Dr. Brad Morgan, Senior Food Safety and Production Specialist at Pfizer, told Food Safety News. “I think that’s how it’s going to work.” SRP®, short for Siderophore Receptor and Porin proteins, is the technology in the vaccine, which works by tying up the iron supply in the cow’s intestines, thus depriving E. coli of an element it needs to metabolize.

Restaurant and retail industry representatives have also shown support for implementing SRP® in the future, says Morgan.

“You’re actually managing [E. coli bacteria] inside the animal, at the source,” says Morgan, meaning that far fewer E. coli will be released into the environment via cow feces, which can spread bacteria onto the carcasses of other animals, human handlers, or even into water draining from the facility.

Morgan says this is a precaution cattle farmers should take to add another layer to the food safety process. “Pre-harvest is where it’s at from a food safety standpoint,” he says. 

Both Raymond and Morgan are quick to note that the SRP® vaccine should not be seen as a substitute for other beef safety precautions, but as a way to enhance the existing system.

“If industry decides they’re going to pay for this and they’re going to reduce some of their processing, I think that would be a huge mistake,” he says. “I would call this another tool in the toolbox. It reduces E. coli O157 significantly, but does not eliminate it.”

The vaccine should also not be seen as an E. coli panacea, Raymond notes, because it has not been proven to work on non-O157 STECs (shiga-toxin-producing E. coli) at this point. 

Pfizer says that addressing these other strains is a possibility in the future, since the vaccine has been shown to create antibodies that affect other common  E. coli serogroups, including O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145.

And the technology has the potential to be expanded to hit other bugs. Indeed the dairy industry has been using an SRP® vaccine to target Salmonella Newport since 2004.

The horizons of possibility for this technology are broad — if a way can be found to fund it. 

In Raymond’s opinion, the money should come from the government, as a responsibility to its citizens.

“It’s a way to protect children,” he says. “It’s a very small drop in the bucket compared to what they spend on childhood vaccinations. Maybe they ought to think outside the box and say, ‘You know what, at ten bucks a cow, this would do more good than perhaps measles, mumps and rubella vaccines.'”

This would also ensure that the drug was applied universally, according to Raymond.

The drug will also become more common when it graduates from its conditional FDA license (it must currently be prescribed by a veterinarian) to the regular chain of distribution, says Morgan. It will also get a boost after more meat packers start demanding that their meat come from treated animals, he says.  

“I think eventually it will almost be mandatory. I think the large packers and players in the meat industry will make that a requirement to purchase animals before slaughter,” predicts Raymond.

And he knows what he hopes will happen: “I love the vaccine. I want it to be used routinely so that the ground beef I eat will just be that much safer.”