The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced today that it has awarded a research grant to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) to help reduce the occurrence and public health risks from Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) along the entire beef production pathway. Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, acting director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), is scheduled to award the $25 million grant to the UNL-lead research team today at the university in Lincoln.

"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 NIFA director. "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. This research will help us to understand how these pathogens travel throughout the beef production process and how outbreaks occur, enabling us to find ways to prevent illness and improve the safety of our nation's food supply."

Dr. James Keen at UNL, along with a multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary team of researchers, educators and extension specialists, will use the $25 million grant to improve risk management and assessment of eight strains of STEC in beef. This work will include the O104 strain that caused the recent outbreak in Germany. The project 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. This knowledge will then be used to find practical and effective STEC risk mitigation strategies. The five main objectives of the project include:

  • Detection: develop and implement rapid detection technologies for pre-harvest, post-harvest and consumer environments.
  • Biology: characterize the biological and epidemiological factors that drive outbreaks of STEC in pre-harvest, post-harvest, retail and consumer settings.
  • Interventions: develop effective and economical interventions to lessen STEC risk from cattle, hides, carcasses, and ground and non-intact beef and compare the feasibility of implementing 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 to evaluate mitigation strategies and their expected public health impacts.
  • Risk management and communication: translate research findings into user-friendly food-safety deliverables for stakeholders, food safety professionals, regulators, educators and consumers.

Most STEC outbreaks are caused by ingestion of contaminated food and contact with fecal material from cattle and other ruminant animals. Most of what is known about STEC comes from outbreak investigations and studies of E. coli O157. The non-O157 STEC strains are not nearly as well understood, partly because outbreaks due to them are rarely identified. This project will help improve our understanding of these strains in addition to O157 strains.

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 comprised of government, academic and industry scientists and food safety professionals. The team will also work collaboratively with several consumer groups, cattlemen groups and meat processor associations, along with numerous industry partners and technology providers, to improve the safety of the beef supply.

Through the President's Food Safety Working Group, USDA and its federal partners have been working on a new, public health-focused approach to food safety based on the principles of prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response. In September 2011, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced a proposal to declare six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli as adulterants in non-intact raw beef. Under the proposal, if the serogroups O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 are found in raw ground beef or its precursors, those products will be prohibited from entering commerce. USDA will launch a testing program to detect these dangerous pathogens and prevent them from reaching consumers.

More About ARFI & NIFA

The coordinated agricultural project grant announced today is through USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and administered through NIFA. AFRI food safety grants promote and enhance the scientific discipline of food safety, with an overall aim of protecting consumers from microbial, chemical, and physical hazards that may occur during all stages of the food chain, from production to consumption.

AFRI is NIFA's flagship competitive grant program and was established under the 2008 Farm Bill. AFRI supports work in six priority areas: plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition and health; renewable energy, natural resources and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.