With 52 recalls of beef tainted with E. coli being issued since 2007, the past few years have been rough for meat eaters, to say the least. But that could all change with new vaccines designed to reduce the number of animals carrying the bacteria by up to 75 percent, according to a recent New York Times piece.

Though many E. coli strains can live inside a cow’s digestive tract without making it sick, people aren’t so fortunate. For example, the virus known as O157:H7 has been responsible for sickening those who eat it in ground beef or other foods, such as cookie dough.

Not surprisingly, as the recalls continue to stack up, the beef industry and government regulators are desperately searching for ways to assuage the public’s fears, and they may have just found it in the E. coli vaccine, which many say has been a long time coming.

“Anything we can do to reduce that inbound load will help us be more successful,” said Mike Chabot, general manager of a Cargill packing plant in Fort Morgan, Colo.

Of course, feeding cows grass instead of corn, which fattens them up faster but also makes them more susceptible to E. coli, would also help reduce the bacteria load, but that’s a whole other story.

Though companies have been working on E. coli vaccines for close to a decade, governmental red tape and jurisdictional confusion between the USDA and the FDA has kept the vaccine on the sidelines, until now.

“It was in both agencies’ netherworld, where neither agency felt they were authorized by law to approve that product,” explained Chuck Lambert, a former deputy under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA.

But in 2005 the USDA decided to take on the issue, determining that the vaccines must show at least a 90 percent reduction in the number of cattle carrying the bacteria. In addition, among cattle that still harbored E. coli after being vaccinated, there must be 99.9 percent reduction in the number of bacteria shed by the animals, according to the Times.

However, with the continuing increase in food contamination issues, the USDA eventually relaxed its requirements.

“I was looking for anything that could help us because people were getting sick and people were dying,” said Dr. Richard Raymond, the Agriculture Department’s under secretary for food safety from 2005 to 2008.

As a result, the USDA recently approved the sale of the Epitopix vaccine, which is currently being tested on about 300,000 head of cattle in the coming months as part of a series of large trials.

A second vaccine, developed by Canadian company Bioniche Life Sciences, was approved for use in Canada last year and is waiting to be approved in the U.S.

Though there are high hopes for the vaccine, both among regulators and the beef industry, who will pay for the extra medical treatment remains unclear.

“I hope it works,” said Jason Timmerman, who is part of the large-scale study. “It probably won’t be so good for my pocketbook directly, but it’ll probably be good for the industry.”

The end of bad beef?
E. coli vaccines are being tested on cattle in the hope that they will reduce food illness outbreaks.