One reason food safety experts attend the annual International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) annual meeting is to be reminded of the really big things that are going on. One of those is definitely the Shiga-toxigenic E. coli Coordinated Agricultural Project, or STEC CAP for short. It’s a $25-million multi-disciplinary, multiple-year project at multiple land-grant research universities funded as a USDA Agriculture and Food Initiative. Targets of the STEC CAP grant search are eight E. coli serotypes — the seven already declared as adulterants in U.S. beef and the European killer known at O104:H4. The five-year research program led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln involves 48 scientists from 11 land-grant research universities and others. The targeted “STEC 8” are responsible for 265,000 illnesses in the United States annually caused by eating contaminated food or having direct contact with fecal matter from infected cattle and other ruminants. STEC CAP has broken down its research into a number of categories, including detection, biology, interventions, risk analysis, and outreach, Kansas State University’s Dr. Randall Phebus told an IAFP audience in Portland, OR, earlier this week. In its fourth year, STEC CAP is hitting on all of its cylinders, including its outreach program’s success in involving 68 interns and 70 high-school teachers in the project. Called “The Worlds of Shiga Toxin-producing E. coli and Beef Continue to Collide: So What’s Happening Lately?,” the presentation delivered on its promise by releasing year-to-date USDA testing results for E. coli. In 17,000 samples to date, just 0.25 percent were positive for E. coli O157:H7, the best-known dangerous Shiga-toxin producing E. coli. Recently named as adulterants, the STEC 6 — 026, 045, O103, O111, O121, and O145 — were found in 2.4 percent of samples by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Another major part of the STEC CAP presentation was a report on work that is underway on “interventions” to lessen the risks of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in beef. It came with a major word of caution from Dr. Gary Acuff with Texas A&M University. He said the idea that the intervention results obtained by university researchers can be transferred to the processing plant is “a pipe dream.” Interventions are used by the beef industry to reduce the incidence of E. coil bacteria on hides and carcasses, all in an effort to keep pathogens out of fresh beef. For STEC CAP, researchers at A&M, led by Acuff, are studying a variety of new methods using everything from hot water techniques to lactic acid sprays. The A&M researchers measure their progress based on “log reductions,” sometimes making a 6-log reduction or making the number of germs a million times smaller. But Acuff cautioned against thinking that the lab results can automatically be achieved in a beef plant.
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