Though researchers are familiar with pre-slaughter E. coli interventions such as probiotics, vaccines, certain chemicals and viruses that kill the bacteria, few manufacturers are seeking approval for these technologies. Government could do more to encourage innovation in this area, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

Reducing contamination before cattle enter the slaughterhouse could save lives and dollars.

According to GAO, since 2006, the beef industry has recalled more than 23 million pounds of beef due to Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) contamination. And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not have an illness count specifically tied to beef products, the agency estimates that STEC contamination of food consumed domestically causes approximately 176,000 illnesses, 2,400 hospitalizations, and 20 deaths annually. STEC O157:H7, the most common strain, costs those infected $489 million each year. The other six common groups of STECs cause an additional 113,000 illnesses annually.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Service is charged with overseeing vaccines for STEC, but GAO says some in the industry find USDA’s approval requirements for these vaccines unclear. The report pointed out that USDA’s guidance “does not address some of the unique challenges faced by manufacturers of animal health products seeking STEC vaccine approval.” For example, the department does not make it clear that if lab studies do not show efficacy, then feedlot or field studies need to be conducted. 

GAO points to the Canadian Centre for Veterinary Biologics as a more effective model because they provides a more specific guidance.
“Without guidance that gives manufacturers clear and more specific information they need to submit for an acceptable application, the approval process for STEC vaccines could face potential delays,” said GAO in the report.

The preharvest report also looked at the status of commercial tests that screen for the six STEC groups (“big six”) that USDA recently declared adulterants. FSIS estimates that 20 percent of U.S. slaughter plants are currently eating for non-O157 STEC strains.
“A representative from one test manufacturer told us he was confident that his company could produce enough tests to meet the demand of the U.S. beef industry. Similarly, a representative from a second manufacturer told us that it is preparing to meet the demand,” read the report.
Some European Union policies were highlighted by GAO as possible models for the United States to improve preharvest food safety.

For example, the EU requires certain measures, such as “verification of cleanliness by an inspector, to ensure that the cattle going to slaughter are clean.” In the United States, USDA inspectors evaluate the health of cattle but they do not inspect for cleanliness. GAO also found that at least 12 EU member countries collected and reported data on STEC in live cattle in 2009, which is above and beyond U.S. policy.

According to GAO, USDA has conducted STEC testing in live cattle, but has not tested since 1999.
The report also pointed to flaws in the United States’ lack of traceback. GAO reported that if a person becomes ill from E. coli in Sweden, public health officials try to trace back the contaminated meat to the specific farm where the cattle originated “so that other carcasses from the farm can be tested for STEC.” The USDA does not traceback to the farm if contamination is detected.
The report recommended that the Agriculture Secretary direct the administrator of APHIS to provide more specific guidance on approval requirements for STEC vaccines and explore the preharvest practices already in employed overseas and consider whether they should be adopted domestically.