With more than three years to go on a major study focused on prevention of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in beef, Randy Phebus, K-State professor of animal sciences and industry, says progress is being made.

The University of Nebraska is the lead institution on the $25 million study that includes more than 50 collaborators, including 17 K-State scientists. In addition to UNL and K-State, participating institutions include: North Carolina State University; the University of California, Davis; the University of Delaware; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; the New Mexico Consortium; USDA-Agricultural Research Service; New Mexico State University; Texas A&M University; and the University of Arkansas.

Awarded by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the five-year study is focused on the best-known STEC, E. coli O157:H7, along with seven strains that are not as well understood, due to outbreaks from these strains being rarely identified. E. coli is a serious food safety issue that causes more than 265,000 infections a year in the United States. Most E. coli illnesses, according to K-State, come from eating contaminated food or having direct contact with fecal matter from infected cattle and other ruminants.

Phebus, who is the lead K-State researcher on the study, identified five primary objectives for K-State in this process, including improving detection capabilities; studying the biology and ecology of these organisms in the beef environment; examining intervention technologies, including pre-harvest, post-harvest and at the consumer level; developing a quantitative microbial risk assessment; and public outreach and educational efforts.

K-State has and continues to study the prevalence of these organisms in live cattle and through the processing stages. Phebus said a study on ground beef in a large processing facility has already been completed and will be repeated in early 2014.  

“We’re looking at what impacts the organisms at different times of the year and in different management systems at the feedlot level,” said Phebus.  “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 also said there’s a big need for consumer education when it comes to the proper storage, handling and cooking of food. 

K-State has also utilized research facilities within the Biosecurity Research Institute, a bio-safety level 3 agriculture facility on K-State’s campus, to investigate how electrostatic spray technology can be used to deliver food-grade antimicrobial solutions as a whole-carcass treatment to control E. coli and other meat-borne pathogens. According to K-State, electrostatic technology puts a fog or charged chemical into the air that is deposited onto the oppositely charged carcass surface.

“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 U.S. beef industry has been working collaborative through private industry, government and academia to improve prevention of E. coli, but Phebus said more work needs to be done.

“The minute you answer one question, you have 10 more questions to answer. It’s an evolving process,” he said.