According to the New York Times, over the past three years there have been 52 recalls of beef tainted with E. coli. In the three years previous to those, there were only 20 recalls.

A new vaccine is being tested that could “significantly reduce the amount of harmful bacteria that cattle carry into slaughterhouses” and reduce the amount of tainted beef that ends up in the hands and mouths of consumers.

The vaccines aren’t intended to wipe out E. coli completely. It’s estimated that there will be a 65 to 75 percent reduction in the number of animals carrying E. coli. If that percentage is correct, then the present safeguards will better catch what remains — although not totally.

Vaccines have been available for about a decade now but approval has been tricky. That’s because the vaccine is given to the cow, but its purpose is to safeguard human health. E. coli doesn’t harm the cow even though it can poison a human. No one I talked to was sure if the Agriculture Department or the Food and Drug Administration had the authority to approve such a vaccine.

One vaccine by a Minnesota company, Epitopix, has been approved for sale while research is ongoing. About 30,000 cattle will be vaccinated during the trials.

Even if the vaccine proves successful, there is another problem: E. coli is spread in the slaughterhouse. However, the vaccine would need to be administered by the farmers or feedlot operators. The question is, who would be responsible for paying for the vaccines?

And, even if the vaccine works and the financial problems are worked out, I have two questions:

  • Should we be fixing the E. coli problem this way? Would this make safety standards more lax if companies thought they were less vulnerable to recalls and lawsuits?
  • What will the vaccine given to the cattle do to the humans who eventually eat the beef? We’re already seeing the human implications of pumping cattle with hormones, and consumers are demanding beef without hormones. The human effects of the vaccine are unknown.
I’m sure you have other thoughts or questions about the vaccine. Leave them in the comments.

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