Fewer than two years into a sweeping five-year study focused on prevention of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) in beef, researchers at Kansas State University and elsewhere are making progress on several fronts, according to Randy Phebus, Kansas State professor of animal sciences and industry.
"We've already done some beneficial research," Phebus said, adding that scientists are working closely with industry production and processing partners because it's important to study the problem in real-life settings.
The $25 million effort announced two years ago includes more than 50 collaborators across the country, including 14 universities and government agencies. Seventeen Kansas State scientists are working with the University of Nebraska, the lead institution, and others on a multi-pronged approach aimed at reducing the occurrence and public health risks from STEC.
This group of bacteria is a serious threat to the safety of the food supply, causing more than 265,000 infections in the U.S. each year. Eating contaminated food or direct contact with fecal matter from infected cattle and other ruminants causes most of these illnesses.
"I think this is really ground-breaking work that we're doing," Phebus said. "It's work that hasn't really been done elsewhere just because of the scope of it."
"We've done a ground beef study in a large beef processing plant already and will repeat it early next year," Phebus said. "We've also completed a study looking at sausage manufacturing."
In a specially outfitted space at Kansas State's Biosecurity Research Institute, team members are investigating how electrostatic spray technology can efficiently deliver food-grade antimicrobial solutions as a whole carcass treatment to control STEC and other meat-borne pathogens. Electrostatic technology puts a fog of chemical into the air that's charged and then is uniformly deposited onto all oppositely charged carcass surfaces.
"The technology works because it gives good coverage but also allows us to use chemicals that would be too expensive to use as a high-volume wash," Phebus said. "It also uses far less water than a wash does, which would be a huge bonus for (beef) plants in some parts of the country such as the Midwest if it's effective."
The researchers are also examining possible interventions in live cattle, including trying to determine the prevalence of these STEC organisms prior to harvest, he said. "We're looking at what impacts the organisms at different times of the year and in different management systems at the feedlot level.
"We completed a big project this summer that looked at fecal and hide samples and then corresponding carcass samples to try to follow the STEC contamination from the live animal through processing," he added.
Phebus said while researchers are making headway, there's more work to be done: "The minute you answer one question, you have 10 more questions to answer. It's an evolving process."