Since 1993, our industry has struggled mightily with E. coli O157:H7 – a strain of bacteria that lives in the intestines of healthy cattle and is also found on the hide. Undercooked ground beef and raw produce are the most common sources of human infections with E. coli O157:H7, which can be deadly.
Despite a myriad of interventions at the packer level and efforts to educate the public about proper cooking temperatures (160° F), we still have outbreaks far too frequently. It’s not only a serious food safety issue but a public relations problem as many activist groups use it as a reason to “go veg,” with some implying it is an antimicrobial resistance issue.
In an attempt to reduce the level of fecal shedding of E. coli O157:H7, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has released a guidance document that encourages preharvest management practices. Aside from promoting the cooking of meat to the appropriate temperature, most of our efforts to reduce the presence of E. coli O157:H7 have focused on the harvest facility. These efforts include sanitary dressing practices, carcass treatments with chemical or physical interventions, and sanitary practices during fabrication.
Meanwhile, preharvest management for E. coli O157:H7 hasn’t been widely adopted. Still, most carcass contamination comes from the hide, not the digestive tract, which gives rise to the saying, “It’s not what’s in ’em, it’s what’s on ’em.”
Still, the FSIS guidance document recommends slaughter establishments receive their cattle from beef producers who implement one or more documented preharvest management practices to reduce fecal shedding.
So, what are these documented preharvest management practices that reduce fecal shedding? The first ones described are basic principles of cattle management – clean feed and water, a clean and appropriately drained environment, separate housing of calves and heifers, reduced animal density, and biosecurity (such as keeping wildlife away from cattle).
All these practices should be followed in the interest of good animal husbandry, but do they reduce fecal shedding of E. coli O157:H7? No.
The next line of the FSIS document says, “Current research has not shown a reduction of E. coli O157:H7 shedding in cattle when these basic principles are used.” But, still the document says, “they provide a foundation for the processing interventions and sanitary dressing procedures….”
The document also contains suggestions for water treatments, feed management, use of different feedstuffs or feed additives (seaweed extract, antibiotics, probiotics), transportation management and some suggestions for reducing hide contamination. But most of the suggestions for reducing fecal shedding are followed by such words as, “has been shown to have a negligible effect” or “the observed change is inconsistent.”
Seaweed extract and ractopamine (OptaFlexx) may offer legitimate intervention opportunities. And, there are some promising interventions such as vaccines and bacteriophages under investigation. One of the vaccines, however, requires three vaccinations at three-week intervals, which would create a great deal of stress and loss of production on the cattle.
My point isn’t to sling mud at FSIS for its suggestions; it’s to point out our lack of progress in dealing with E. coli O157:H7, something this guidance document makes very obvious. To me, this document suggests FSIS is under pressure and needed to get something in place, even if not strongly supported by science.
FSIS also is encouraging slaughter establishments to push some of the responsibility up the line, but its recommendations are weak. In fact, some recommendations will create more cattle stress, which has been associated with more fecal shedding of E. coli O157:H7.
Currently, our best intervention appears to be cooking meat to 160° F, which puts the responsibility in the hands of the end user. This isn’t acceptable. If we want to continue to claim the safest, most wholesome food supply in the world, our industry must do a better job of addressing this issue.
Dave Sjeklocha is a feedlot consulting veterinarian at the Haskell County Animal Hospital in Sublette, KS. Contact him at 620-675-8180.