The study is being led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and will target Shiga-toxin producing E.coli, or STEC, which causes more than 265,000 illnesses in the US and 150 million illnesses globally every year, killing more than 1 million people worldwide.
The research team will include 48 scientists from 11 universities, as well as government, academic and industry scientists and food service professionals. They will study the seven most dangerous strains of E.coli, plus a new strain which caused the severe outbreak in Europe last year.
The biggest cause of STEC infections is consumption of contaminated food or direct contact with fecal matter from infected ruminants, so the team will focus on identifying the risk factors that lead to STEC infections and developing strategies to detect and control the bacteria along the beef chain.
Jim Keen, a UNL veterinary scientist who is leading the project, said: “We will be studying the entire beef chain, from the time an animal is born until the time beef products are consumed.”
Most of the research, education and extension work for the project will be carried out by UNL and Kansas State University – with 32 scientists from the two establishments taking part in the study. Ronnie Green, Harlan vice-chancellor of UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said: “With 6.2 million cattle and the nation’s No. 1 ranking for red meat production, Nebraska is an economic epicentre for the beef industry.
“This collaborative research will enable the University of Nebraska and 10 partner institutions to expand on a long history of high impact research to ensure the safety of beef products on dinner tables around the world.”
The university said that the $25m grant is the largest it has ever been given by USDA and one of the largest it has ever received.
Chavonda Jacobs-Young, acting director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), said: “Shiga toxin-producing E.coli is a serious threat to our food supply and public health, causing more than 265,000 infections each year.
“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.”
There is currently no treatment for STEC infections, which cause severe diarrhea and kidney damage. Antibiotics can actually make the illness worse, because they cause the bacteria to burst, releasing more of the Shiga toxin.