Editor’s note: This is a response to “Study Finds Non-O157 E. coli Common in Beef” by Dan Flynn, published June 1, 2011 in Food Safety News. It was submitted by Dr. Mindy Brashears, Dr. Guy Loneragan, Dr. Mark Miller and Jessie Vipham.

Thank you for your interest in the research being currently studied within the Food Safety and Public Health program at Texas Tech University. We strive to conduct the best research possible that advances our knowledge and understanding among our field and can be translated and applied to enhance the safety of our food supply. Given this, we are concerned that you may have misinterpreted our research in a manner that is inaccurate and misleading and may confuse this critically important issue. We take our role in the food safety continuum very seriously and have concerns when our research is interpreted in a manner that may not be accurate and also be misleading.  

Jessie Vipham was a graduate student in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech University who successfully graduated in May of this year with her M.S. degree; as such, her thesis has officially been published by the university and is available for download from the Texas Tech University Library. Additionally, Ms. Vipham has had an abstract accepted for presentation at IAFP that will summarize the findings of her study.

The article states, “Texas Tech University graduate students recently went shopping in 32 cities in 28 states for the kind of non-O157 toxin-producing Escherichia coli now killing people in Europe.” This is not an accurate statement on two accounts. First of all, the evaluation of samples was of a small subsample from this much broader nationwide study of beef where she developed a baseline for Campylobacter and Salmonella, not STECs. The small subset of samples contained 252 ground beef and 73 whole muscle cuts from the larger “nationwide baseline” sample group consisting of 2,230 ground beef and 686 whole muscle cuts.  Secondly, we did not analyze the samples for the presence of E. coli O104:H4, the strain associated with the current outbreak in Europe.

The article also states that, “Non-O157 STEC antigens, like the deadly O104:H4 pathogen associated with the outbreak in northern Europe, were found in 5.9 percent of the beef samples”. In Ms. Vipham’s exploration of the small subsample, she used rtPCR to detect genetic targets that differentiate among serotypes: O145, O26, O111, O103, O121, O91, O113, and O45. In the first sentence of the results section, she states, “It is important to note that these isolates have not tested positive for pathogenicity.” The isolates have not been analyzed for the virulence markers but rather only for the genes encoding O antigens.    

It is also important to note that it was not the purpose of her small subsample study to try and recover STEC but rather to provide a preliminary look to see if it warrants systematically exploring STEC analyses on remaining ground beef/whole muscle samples to determine prevalence within our study. As co-authors, we think that the preliminary study indicates that a more thorough exploration is warranted to provide the industry with hard data on which they can use. The further analyses would include screening all ground beef samples for the presence of non-O157 STECs and evaluating any presumptive positive samples for the presence of virulence genes.

One additional point of clarification is that many of the statements made in the article that are said to be “reported by Texas Tech” are in fact part of a comprehensive literature review in the thesis. The prevalence data on human food-borne disease outbreaks as well as data representing prevalence of pathogens in other countries was not collected by TTU scientists, but rather included in the thesis as a point of reference to put Ms. Vipham’s data in context.

  • Doc Mudd

    This is an important clarification.
    Microbiology is a complex science allied to the health field. As such, it is highly vulnerable to misinterpretation in the blogosphere. In their zeal to illustrate a point, journalists, like most lay people are prone to over-simplify and misinterpret scientific research.
    Indeed, the point of teaching science in schools is to instill respect for the scientific method and explain how correct conclusions can be drawn from scientific observations. Masters degree programs train students to control their personal biases in order to accurately perform and interpret science.
    Good science is an unbiased, nitpicky methodology too often unsupportive of sensational claims. Fact, concept and context are all important to science. Vital to human progress but seldom the stuff of front page reporting.

  • Federal microbiologist

    Did a little digging and found that the two senior faculty members on Jesse Vipham’s MS thesis project- Mark Miller and Mindy Brashears – have regularly received awards from:
    The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
    The American Meat Institute Foundation
    San Antonio Livestock Exposition
    Tyson Fresh Meats
    National Pork Board
    (just check the link: http://www.depts.ttu.edu/afs/people/docs/CV_Miller.pdf)
    Looks like those ag industry ‘sponsors’ weren’t at all happy about discovering that the people to whom they are giving funds are uncovering some potentially disturbing things about ground beef.
    Looks like they told Miller and Brashears to toe the line – pronto. Hence the Letter to the Editor.
    Someone needs to tell ‘Doc Mudd’ that parroting industry rhetoric about ‘good science’ convenient overlooks one very, very, very important thing:

  • Doc Mudd

    Naw…good, solid science and appropriate statistical analysis stand on their own merit, regardless of sponsor. The scientific method, “Fed…”, the time-proven scientific method trumps personal opinion. You oughta know that.
    You’re blowing smoke up our skirts out of desperation on this one, “Fed…”. Drop the woo, accept the facts and let’s move the science forward.
    Reserve your anti-ag rhetoric for the punky Brand-x echo chamber websites. Oh, and keep your loopy personal opinions out of your microbiology science…on the taxpayer’s dime…if you please.