Cattle herdDespite the proven effectiveness of vaccines designed to decrease the presence of E. coli bacteria in cattle by as much as 98 percent, beef producers are not likely to widely adopt the practice of vaccinating their herds until there is a clear economic incentive, according to a new study by economics researchers at Kansas State University. Often associated with beef, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli — such as E. coli O157:H7 — is one of the most notorious and harmful foodborne pathogens, infecting an estimated 265,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Beyond causing fatal outbreaks, E. coli contamination in beef has also led to numerous food recalls costing billions of dollars. Beginning in 2009, commercial vaccines have been available to beef producers to significantly reduce E. coli in cattle digestive systems by 50 to 75 percent on average, with some cattle showing reductions as high as 98 percent. In 2013, a study on the vaccines estimated that their use could reduce E. coli infections in humans by up to 83 percent. But beef producers have been slow to adopt the vaccines. The most likely reason is that, given their cost, there isn’t a clear enough economic incentive, said Glynn Tonsor, associate professor of Agricultural Economics at KSU and co-author of the study. Simply put, the vaccines are not tied to an immediate economic benefit for producers. As the authors explain, the presence of E. coli in cattle does not hinder the feeding of cattle or the production of beef and, on the other end, there is not a strong market demand for premium-priced beef that has been treated with an E. coli vaccine. Tonsor and colleague Ted Schroeder estimate that for every head of cattle, administering an E. coli vaccine costs between $8.35 and $15, depending on how much the animal’s behavior and stress level is impacted by the physical act of administering the shots. Extrapolated over a 10-year period, that adds up to a cost of $1-1.8 billion for the industry, assuming a steady adoption rate. “At the end of the day, it’s just a higher fit cattle price,” Tonsor told Food Safety News. In other words, producers aren’t going to introduce new costs to their production process unless they see other costs reduced further down the supply chain or an increased market demand for vaccinated beef. In order for producers to feel confident about adopting a vaccine, they would need to know one of three results — or a cumulative combination of results — would occur to offset costs:

  • Domestic retail demand for beef increases by 1.7 to 3 percent
  • Export demand for beef increases by 18.1 to 32.6 percent
  • Producer costs decrease by 1.2 to 3.9 percent

Tonsor said he does not see any signs that producers will begin adopting the E. coli vaccines in large numbers anytime soon. For that to happen, retailers or meatpackers will need to begin offering price premiums for vaccinated cattle, though that is not likely to occur without a large amount of public demand. Few beef producers question the effectiveness of the vaccines, Tonsor said. But a technology has to do more than just work if people are going to adopt it; it has to be economically beneficial. “The economics work, but they don’t always align with our food safety goals,” he said.