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USDA awards $25m grant to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for E. coli research

By Elaine Watson , 24-Jan-2012
Last updated on 24-Jan-2012 at 12:09 GMT

USDA awards $25m grant to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for E. coli research

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded a $25m research grant to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) to tackle Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) in the beef supply chain.

While most of what is known about STEC comes from studies of E. coli O157, the new research will look in detail at the less understood non-O157 STEC strains, including the O104 strain that caused the recent E.coli outbreak in Germany, said Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, acting director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“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.”

User-friendly food safety deliverables

The research will be co-ordinated by Dr. James Keen at UNL, who leads a multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary team of scientists from industry and academia, with the aim of improving risk management and assessment of eight strains of STEC in beef.

The key objectives are:

Detection: To develop and implement rapid detection technologies.

Biology: To characterize the biological and epidemiological factors that drive outbreaks of STEC.

Interventions: To develop 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 and small beef producers.

Risk analysis and assessment: To develop a risk assessment model for STEC from live cattle to consumption.

Risk management and communication: To translate research findings into user-friendly food-safety deliverables for all stakeholders.

The E.coli testing regime

Meat industry associations are currently urging USDA to delay implementation of a controversial proposal published by its Food Safety and Inspection Service last September that would classify six serogroups of pathogenic E. coli as adulterants in ground beef and other non-intact ground beef products.

Under the proposal , if new USDA testing – commencing March 5, 2012 - detects serogroups O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145 in raw ground beef or its precursors, they will be prohibited from entering commerce.

But the American Meat Institute has urged USDA to delay the effective date for the new policy “until such time that the several important scientific issues … can be considered and addressed”.

‘Not an urgent and unique public health crisis’

In a letter sent to USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on December 8 on behalf of several meat industry associations, the AMI said: “Because any considered analysis of CDC data shows that STEC are not an urgent and unique public health crisis, rather than rush headlong into this questionable policy there is time to conduct a risk assessment, ensure the accuracy and efficacy of test methods, and collect data needed to determine the extent of the problem.”

The AMI has also raised concerns that the new testing policy could violate the US’ WTO obligations under Article 5 of the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures.

The AMI letter added: “It is also challenging to know what the industry cost will be because it is difficult to predict how many establishments will start to test and what the size distribution will be or to what extent industry will take additional measures that will prevent, reduce, or control those hazards.”

In a statement issued last September, AMI executive vice president James Hodges said: “USDA’s declaration of six nSTEC as adulterants in beef is neither warranted nor justified by the science… CDC estimates that 48m foodborne illnesses occur in the US annually and nSTEC from all food sources account for 112,000 illness, yet federal resources are being devoted only to STEC in beef products that account for less than 0.1 percent of total foodborne illnesses.”

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