GAO: preslaughter interventions could reduce E. coli in cattle

A new report concludes the federal government should provide more specific public guidance on the license approval requirements of vaccines that could reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 and friends in cattle.

Because right now, it’s bureaucratic, and no one can offer a clear explanation.

The U.S Government Accountability Project in report GAO-12-257 (for sticklers) also concluded the Secretary of Agriculture should explore practices employed by other countries that are not currently used in the U.S. for reducing shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) in cattle and consider whether the identified practices can inform U.S. efforts.

From the report:

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and university researchers identified several treatments administered before cattle are slaughtered, or preslaughter interventions, that could reduce Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) in cattle. Such preslaughter interventions include bacteriophages (viruses that infect and kill bacteria), probiotics (live bacteria that can benefit the digestive system), vaccines (biological preparations that alter the immune system), and sodium chlorate (chemical that kills the STEC O157:H7 strain). However, few manufacturers have submitted applications for preslaughter intervention products to target STEC according to officials from USDA and the Food and Drug Administration. One exception is for vaccines to reduce STEC O157:H7.

For preslaughter interventions, USDA exercises responsibilities for licensing and regulating STEC vaccines. However, USDA’s approval requirements for these vaccines are unclear, according to some industry representatives. Specifically, USDA’s general guidance does not address some of the unique challenges faced by manufacturers of animal health products seeking STEC vaccine approval. For example, the guidance does not explain that, if studies conducted in the laboratory are insufficient to demonstrate efficacy, the manufacturer would also need to demonstrate that the vaccine is effective in a field setting such as a feedlot. In contrast, the Canadian Centre for Veterinary Biologics provides more specific guidance about when it requires the use of laboratory or field studies to demonstrate efficacy for vaccine license applications. Without guidance that gives manufacturers clear and more specific information they need to submit for an acceptable application, the approval process for STEC vaccines could face potential delays.

In addition to STEC O157:H7, which it stated in 1994 was an adulterant—a substance that renders food injurious to human health—in September 2011, USDA determined that six other STEC strains were adulterants in raw ground beef and beef trim (meat left after steaks and roasts are cut from beef). USDA has tests for these six strains and plans to use them in slaughter plants starting in June 2012. However, it may be difficult and time-consuming to confirm positive test results because certain test components are either not commercially available for all strains or do not always provide clear results. USDA is working to improve the tests and to find a commercial supplier for one key test component. Also, a few companies voluntarily test for these strains.

Some foreign governments have practices that could be relevant to U.S. efforts to reduce STEC in cattle such as the following:

The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union require certain measures, such as verification of cleanliness by an inspector, to ensure that the cattle going to slaughter are clean. In contrast, USDA assesses the health of cattle but does not inspect for cleanliness.
At least 12 European Union member countries collected and reported data on STEC in live cattle in 2009. USDA has conducted STEC testing in live cattle, but has not tested since 1999.
When a person becomes ill from E. coli in Sweden, government officials try to determine the specific farm that sold the contaminated cattle so that other carcasses from the farm can be tested for STEC. USDA does not trace the STEC source back to the farm.

The complete report is available at

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About Douglas Powell

A former professor of food safety and the publisher of, Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey. Download Doug’s CV here. Dr. Douglas Powell editor, retired professor, food safety 3/289 Annerley Rd Annerley, Queensland 4103 61478222221 I am based in Brisbane, Australia, 15 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time