A $25 million grant has been awarded to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study how to reduce the risk of 8 pathogenic E. coli strains that can contaminate beef and cause human illness.

The five-year research project, announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not only will look at E. coli O157:H7, but also the serogroups O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 — recently proposed by USDA as adulterants in non-intact raw beef — as well as E. coli O104, the strain responsible for last year’s massive outbreak in Germany linked to sprouts grown from contaminated seeds. 

Most outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infection are caused by eating foods, including fresh produce, contaminated with fecal material from cattle and other ruminants.  Contaminated water or contact with animals, as in petting zoos, are other typical  sources of exposure.

Much of what is known about these Shiga toxin-producing bacteria comes from outbreak investigations and studies of E. coli O157. The non-O157 STEC strains are not nearly as well understood, but together may be causing more illnesses than O157.

The goal of the project, according to USDA, is to help improve understanding of how these these pathogens travel through beef production and how outbreaks occur, in order to find ways to prevent them.

“Shiga toxin-producing E. coli are a serious threat to our food supply and public health, causing more than 265,000 infections each year,” said Chavonda Jacobs-Young, acting director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, in the news release announcing the project. 

“As non-O157 STEC bacteria have emerged and evolved, so too must our regulatory policies to protect the public health and ensure the safety of our food supply.”

Dr. James Keen at UNL will lead the research team, which will focus on identifying hazards and assessing exposures that lead to STEC infections in cattle, and on developing strategies to detect, characterize and control these pathogens along the beef chain.

That knowledge will then be used to find practical and effective ways to reduce risk.  The five main objectives of the project are:

— Detection: develop and implement rapid testing

— Biology: characterize the biological and epidemiological factors that drive STEC outbreaks 

— Interventions: develop cost-effective interventions to lessen STEC risk from cattle, hides, carcasses, and ground and non-intact beef, and then compare the feasibility of these interventions for large, small and very small beef producers.

— Risk analysis and assessment: develop a risk assessment model for STEC from live cattle to consumption.

— Risk management and communication: translate research findings into user-friendly food-safety information for stakeholders, food safety professionals, regulators, educators and consumers.

Keen has seen first-hand how devastating E. coli can be. Last year Keen’s niece became ill and nearly died from an E. coli infection, according to a report in the Omaha World-Herald.

Keen’s team includes researchers from the University of Arkansas, University of California-Davis, University of California-Tulare, University of Delaware, Kansas State University, New Mexico State University, North Carolina State University, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and a research consortium of government, academic and industry scientists and food safety professionals.

The team will work with several consumer groups, cattlemen groups and meat processor associations, along with industry partners and technology providers, according to USDA.

The USDA has proposed that beginning March 5, 2012, beef trim will be tested for six serogroups, often known as the Big Six, in addition to E. coli O157. The American Meat Institute has asked for such testing to be postponed until a risk assessment is conducted, and data collected to determine the extent of beef contamination by non-O157 E. coli.