One of the lead researchers in a $25 million grant awarded five years ago says the nation’s beef supply is safer now from Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) than it was before the project started.
Randy Phebus, Kansas State University professor of animal sciences and industry, said the project has given scientists a much better understanding of the ecology and frequency of the potentially deadly E. coli pathogen in cattle and beef products.
“We have better diagnostics now, and we have a better understanding of the baseline contamination frequency, both in live animals and in food products,” Phebus said. “We have now developed and validated multiple intervention technologies to control STEC, allowing companies to pick and choose what works best for them, with an end result of keeping it out of the beef supply.”
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded $25 million to the University of Nebraska to study STEC, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates causes 265,000 sicknesses in the United States each year.
Phebus, who is on the grant’s executive management team, is the principal investigator at Kansas State University, which has received nearly $9 million from the grant to conduct research, education and outreach.
It is the largest food safety grant ever awarded by NIFA, matched only by a $25 million award given at the same time to North Carolina State University for research on foodborne noroviruses. Both grants were awarded under NIFA’s Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP), designed to address large, complex issues related to agriculture and the food supply.
Since 2012, 15 universities and two research organizations have been involved in the STEC grant, which includes training for the next generation of professionals who will be responsible for implementing commercial food safety programs and conducting research for years to come. Approximately 50 Ph.D.-level researchers have contributed their expertise already.
The public’s awareness of one particularly virulent strain of E. coli rose swiftly in 1993 when 732 people became sick and four children died after eating hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants in California, Idaho, Washington and Nevada.
That outbreak was caused by E. coli O157:H7, but researchers and regulators have also targeted six other serogroups – Phebus calls them “the STEC cousins” – that are responsible for about 70 percent of non-O157 illnesses in the U.S. The seven STEC serogroups are now legally considered adulterants in raw, non-intact beef products.
“When we started this in 2012, there was very little understanding of what these STEC cousins really looked like in terms of frequency and concentration, or types of cattle herds they were mostly associated with…what the impact of region and season was on these,” Phebus said. “You kind of assumed they would be similar to what we know about O157; well as it turns out, it probably is not the same in the cattle population. We are seeing differences.”
E. coli O157:H7 and its six ‘STEC cousins’, along with another deadly STEC O104 serogroup, are dubbed STEC-8 by the CAP grant researchers. E. coli O104 is a strain that caused 4,000 sicknesses and 40 deaths in 2011 when sprouts were infected in Germany.
“We were just getting our grant,” Phebus remembers. “NIFA came to us and said, ‘we want you guys to look and see if this organism, O104, is potentially harbored in livestock in our country.’”
Phebus said that researchers in the university’s veterinary school, led by T.G. Nagaraja, looked for the virulent form of O104 in “large numbers of the cattle population” and have not found any evidence of it in U.S. herds.
“We have reduced our concern for O104 in the STEC CAP grant work,” Phebus said. “We have developed the diagnostics to test for it, but we are not looking for it any more.”
Earlier this year, the grant funded its 100th internship, which has allowed students across the country to study STEC alongside university researchers. Some of the students attend minority-serving institutions in the United States.
“These are premier-type internships,” Phebus said. “We support their research projects, and the students themselves get a $4,500 stipend, plus an additional $1,000 to travel to our annual meeting and present a poster.”
Each student is required to spend 300 to 500 hours on their research project.
“It’s been pretty remarkable,” Phebus said. “A lot of the students have gone on to graduate school in food science or public health-type fields. We’ve got quite a few that have taken jobs at places that could expand into their future career. It’s been a very successful program. We’ve put more than one-half million dollars of the grant into the internships.”
He added: “That’s the next generation of food safety specialists. Maybe they end up in beef production, maybe they end up in cookie production, who knows. But they’re still using those food safety concepts to keep our foods safe.”
Two faculty researchers at minority-serving institutions have led projects to understand the frequency of STEC contamination in retail veal products and evaluate novel intervention strategies for control.
Phebus and others are creating 45-minute, taped modules for a distance education course titled, ‘Advanced Food Safety Concepts.’ He said that researchers plan to create 15 individual modules to address specific topics important to meat and food safety.
Nearly two-thirds of the original $25 million grant has been used for research, while the other one-third has been used for education and outreach. Phebus said that even though the five-year grant period is almost up, the researchers have received an extension to continue work through November 2017 – and are expecting an additional extension that will take them through much of 2018.