If an E. coli O1157:H7 vaccine for cattle works, who should pay

Elizabeth Weise in USA Today doesn’t really answer the who-should-pay question, but does ask, what if it were possible to almost entirely do away with E. coli in ground beef and it would cost only about a penny a burger?

Food-safety experts say it’s entirely feasible with new technologies that have become available. One is a vaccine, the other a feed additive, which, given early enough, could bring down potential E. coli contamination to negligible levels.

The problem, experts in beef safety say, is that the economics are backward. The new interventions have to be administered long before the cattle are slaughtered, when the calves are young or in feedlots where they’re growing.

It’s hard to figure out who should pay for steps that would take place months and possibly years before the grill starts sizzling. The people who’d have to pay for them aren’t the ones who would reap the direct benefits.’’’

These interventions aren’t perfect, but they’re very good, says Guy Loneragan, a professor of food safety at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. "The question is no longer, ‘Can we get the technologies?’ We’ve got them, or they’re soon to arrive. The question is ‘How do we implement?’ "

So far only two small companies appear to be embracing them. One is a tiny feed lot cooperative in Kansas that’s looking to vaccinate all its cattle "soon." The other is a Meade, Kan., cooperative that’s staking its economic life on calling for retailers nationally to demand these interventions from the packers that supply their meat.

The regulatory landscape "is confusing," says Elisabeth Hagen, USDA’s undersecretary for food safety. "But we’re realizing that there’s an issue here and somehow we have to bring everybody together and focus on the end product, the result of which is the safety of the food that goes to the American consumer."

Loneragan says they’ve gone as far as they can after the animal is slaughtered. Now the focus needs to be on ridding the animals of E. coli O157:H7 before they get to the slaughterhouse. The new methods to do that involve:

•A vaccine. The biggest and potentially most game-changing treatment is a vaccine introduced by Pfizer Animal Health in 2010 and given in a three-shot series starting when the calf is just 6 months old. This gets rid of the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in 85% of the cattle, says Brad Morgan, a senior food-safety specialist at Pfizer Animal Health in Stillwater, Okla. Not only that, but even among the ones that still have the bacteria in the gut, the injections reduce the amount the animals shed in their manure by 98%, he says.

It’s not all or nothing. Pfizer has done studies showing that if only 50% or even 25% of cattle are vaccinated, rates of E. coli are strongly reduced in the feed yard, and therefore in the packing plant. And Harvard’s Hammitt says his research shows that Americans understand that food can’t be "perfectly safe," but they want safer.

The vaccine costs $4 to $6 per animal for the full series, says Loneragan. There are several other vaccines in the regulatory pipeline here and overseas.

•The probiotic. The other intervention is a probiotic added to feed. These are beneficial bacteria cultures that out-compete the more dangerous forms of E. coli in the cattles’ guts, much as yogurt is said to seed the gut with good bacteria to keep out the bad. Many studies have found that using "the right strain at the right dose you can get a fairly predictable 40% to 50% reduction in E. coli O157:H7," says Loneragan.

The American Meat Institute Foundation, the research arm of the meat industry trade group, says there just isn’t enough data yet to know if these treatments work. While there’s been a tremendous amount of research and it looks promising, "We’re right at the cusp of understanding the technology," says Betsy Booren, the institute’s director of scientific affairs.

Last year Cargill, one of the nation’s largest beef producers, conducted a trial of the E. coli vaccine on 85,000 head of cattle at its Fort Morgan, Colo., beef-processing facility, says spokesman Mike Martin at Cargill’s Wichita headquarters.

The trial’s results were "inconclusive," Martin says, in part because the levels of O157:H7 they found on the cattle in general "were the lowest in years . …" There was "very little difference" in rates between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated cattle, he says.

Loneragan says in the studies he’s done, E. coli O157:H7 levels were indeed low but dropped lower in meat from vaccinated cattle.

In the end, it’s going to take movement by the biggest companies to move the industry. There are two that could make this happen in a second, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, says Chuck Jolley, a meat industry marketing company executive.

"If either decides to require it, the industry will turn around on a dime," he says.

We have a right to know if food will make us barf

TV celebrity Dr. OZ says, ‘We have a right to know if our food has been genetically modified.’

I’ve been saying the same thing for 20 years – just put some boundaries on what is genetic modification, because all food is genetically modified, and figure out the best way to provide that information without imposing on others who don’t care about such lifestyle choices.

As a physician though, why isn’t Ozzie outraged about all the millions of people who get sick from the food and water they consume each year? 23 dead and 116 sick from cantaloupe is perhaps too graphic when compared to the histrionics that can be generated by hypothetical risks.

Similarly, Justin Gillis writing in the New York Times reports about self-proclaimed deep thinking going on in the food sustainability camp – which is as vague as the no-GMO camp – and that an intriguing idea is a new certification system for sustainably produced food.

“Instead of catering to a single ideological predilection, the way the organic label does now, the new label would be based on a system that awards points for public benefits and subtracts them for environmental harm. Foods produced according to the best practices would get the highest scores, or possibly the highest letter grades. If consumers adopted it, such a certification would put pressure on companies and farmers to clean up their practices.”

Consumers have the power. Oz Man, take up the cause of microbiologically safe food: we have a right to know if food will make us barf.

Marketing food safety, but what does HACCP mean?

A colleague sent me these pictures of fish seasoning purchased in a San Francisco Asian supermarket. The back mentions both HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) and ISO 9001, but doesn’t say what either mean.

In Brisbane, we bought a pint of fresh strawberries from Gowinta Farms, which bills itself as the largest strawberry farm on the sunshine coast, featuring a café, fruit shop, packhouse, transportation and a workshop.

And you can see from the plastic container, it’s all HACCP-certified.

I’m not sure what that means, or if consumers know what it means, but these are further indications of baby-steps to start promoting microbial food safety directly to consumers.

3 Austin restaurants closed for selling stolen supermarket meat

Eater reports that 60-year-old East Austin barbecue legend Sam’s BBQ, Willie’s Bar-B-Que and La Morenita all had their business licenses revoked as a result of Operation Meat Locker. Austin police had been working with HEB for the past three months to bust meat thieves — it’s a "growing crime" in Central Texas.

Apparently thieves shove meat down their pants to sneak it out of grocery stores and "walk long distances or ride the bus" in order to sell it to restaurants.

Shockingly, investigators discovered "food safety was not a priority."

Officers posing as meat thieves approached 25 restaurants with the stolen meat, and only the three listed above went for it. Five arrests have been made. The restaurants can apply to have their permits reinstated but must remain closed until that happens.

People say they will pay more for safer food, will they? Someone needs to test at retail

Willingness-to-pay studies are excellent indicators of what people think they will do in imaginary situations.

Willingness-to-pay studies are terrible indicators of what people will actually do at the grocery store.

Brian Roe, professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University (isn’t that The OSU?) and Mario Teisl of the University of Maine report in the journal Food Policy, that based on surveys from 3,511 individuals, Americans would be willing to pay about a dollar per person each year, or an estimated $305 million in the aggregate, for a 10 percent reduction in the likelihood that hamburger they buy in the supermarket is contaminated by E. coli.

A monkey just flew out of Wayne Campbell’s butt (see video below from last week’s Saturday Night Live).

By comparison, a 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis estimated the value of eradicating a specific type of E. coli contamination from all food sources would result in a benefit valued at $446 million.

In the questionnaire, they set up six hypothetical scenarios around the purchase of either a package of hotdogs or a pound of hamburger. They set prices for the packages – both "status quo" foods and those treated with either ethylene gas processing or electron beam irradiation to reduce contaminants – and then laid out a variety of probabilities that the treated or untreated food packages contained contamination with either E. coli or listeria, another pathogen that can cause food-borne (sic) illness.

They followed by asking respondents to choose one of three actions: buy the food treated with the pathogen-reducing technology, buy their usual brand, or stop buying this product altogether.

The results showed that consumers will reach a limit to how much they want to pay to reduce their chances of getting sick. If the treated product cost only 10 cents more than an untreated package, about 60 percent of respondents said they’d buy the improved product. But when that higher price reached $1.60 more per package, less than a third would opt for the treated product.

The structure of the survey also allowed researchers to see the influence of human behavior and opinions on likely illness outcomes.

"If the food industry were forced to put technology in place that lowered the presence of E. coli and that ramped up prices to the extent where everybody had to pay about a dollar more out of pocket each year for hamburger, we’re saying that, according to this model, that would be about an equal tradeoff for the U.S. population. And if the technology costs only about 10 cents per person instead, that would seem like a good deal to most people," he said.

"If regulators could become more comfortable with this measurement process, agencies might change the way they conduct their cost-benefit analysis. And that would be an interest of ours, to see if our work and others’ work in this area will eventually change the way people attack these questions."

So it’s more about changing the way estimates are done. Estimates are lousy surrogates. I’m all for marketing food safety – at retail, food service, markets, everywhere. Brag about test results, use big signs, smart phone readers, just be able to back it up.

Food poison risk from poultry packaging

Food safety types in Birmingham, U.K. have found that 40 per cent of all plastic packaging containing chicken in Birmingham contained food poisoning bacteria.

In a survey of 20 supermarkets, convenience stores and butcher’s shops throughout the city, food safety officials found that eight were contaminated on the outside of the packet.

They also found seven chickens were contaminated inside the wrapping, while one tested positive for salmonella. There was no link between those infected inside and outside the packaging.

Team manager Nick Lowe said, “Our message to consumers is that handling the packaging should be regarded as just as likely to cause food poisoning and touching the raw meat.”

Once handled in a supermarket the bacteria can be passed on through trolley handles, shopping bags and transferred to other foods. In one supermarket a pool of juice collected on the chiller shelf was also contaminated.

The food (safety) cycle: recall, forget, repeat

Memories can be short when it comes to food recalls.

Amy Schoenfeld writes in Sunday’s New York Times that while Americans are concerned about food contamination, experts say that recalls have only a short-term effect on consumers.

When spinach was recalled in 2006, consumers took over a year to return to previous spending patterns. But after recent recalls of peanut butter, beef and eggs, customers came back in a matter of weeks.

One explanation for this is that eggs are a staple; nearly 9 in 10 Americans say they eat them. By contrast, only 5 in 10 Americans say they are spinach eaters. After the spinach recall, 10 percent of spinach eaters said they were unlikely to eat spinach again. In contrast, 3 percent of egg eaters said they would stop purchasing eggs.

Rather than waiting to sue after sickness, consumers could use their buying power to demand microbiologically safer food, if someone would start marketing at retail.

Salmonella in eggs; DeCoster and Son go to DC

There’ll be the usual posturing, handwringing and contrition for the cameras at today’s Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.

Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports this morning that Jack DeCoster and his son, Peter, will apologize at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee meeting today to the 1,608 confirmed victims of a salmonella outbreak and pledge not to resume selling fresh eggs until their farms are free from disease.

“While we always believed we were doing the right thing, it is now very clear that we must do more,” said Peter DeCoster, who is chief operating officer of the Wright County Egg operations, which his father owns.

In a 10-page statement obtained by The Des Moines Register, the men point to a feed ingredient purchased from an outside supplier as the likely source of the salmonella contamination. Federal investigators have reported finding salmonella in several areas of the farms in addition to the feed mill.

This is a terrible strategy. Blaming others and failing to outline what DeCoster and Son were actually doing in terms of testing and other steps to manage the risk of salmonella – before the outbreak — will be a rhetorical playground for even the most addle-minded Congressional-types.

It’ll be like angry parents scolding a teenager who says, sorry, I won’t do it again.

The accused is sorry he got caught.


The N.Y. Times documented this morning the 1987 salmonella-in-eggs outbreak that killed nine and sickened 500, linked to farms owned by … Austin Jack DeCoster.

Farms tied to Mr. DeCoster were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidis in the United States in the 1980s, when some of the first major outbreaks of human illness from the bacteria in eggs occurred, according to health officials and public records. At one point, New York and Maryland regulators believed DeCoster eggs were such a threat that they banned sales of the eggs in their states.

How many others were sickened by DeCoster and Son eggs over the intervening 23 years, in the absence of an outbreak?

Government’s hopeless.

Market microbial food safety at retail so I, as a consumer, have a choice, so I can reward those egg producers who effectively manage salmonella – before there’s an outbreak.

Market produce safety at retail so consumers can choose

I’m no fan of economic estimates of foodborne illness. The numbers are somewhat fantastical and the assumptions behind the numbers are usually oblique and obscured.

I’m also not a fan of whining.

In response to a study released earlier this week by the Pew Charitable Foundation’s Produce Safety Project, which pegged the annual cost of foodborne illness at $152 billion and which Chapman has already taken to task, United Fresh Produce Association president Tom Stenzel said,

“It’s really a shame that, once again, advocates for food safety legislative reform are stoking unneeded anxiety about produce safety. This report inappropriately lumps together data from all foods and all food contamination events, including those at church picnics and cross-contamination after sale to the consumer. There’s no data on illnesses actually related to contamination from the farm, which is a much smaller subset cause of foodborne illness. … The fresh produce industry is working tirelessly to grow and market the safest possible products. We strongly support national government oversight of produce safety standards to ensure a science-based, commodity-specific approach no matter where a product is grown. What’s harmful about tactics like this is that advocates are actually scaring consumers away from the very products they need to be consuming more of for better health.”

Dude, you need a better writer. And an editor.

Rather than complain, why not advertize and market all the outstanding food safety efforts your members are undertaking, at retail, so concerned consumers, who have heard a thing or two about produce-related outbreaks over the past 20 years, can make their buying decisions based on evidence rather than faith? Make your testing data public. And stop whining.

Natural does not mean safe: Kansas locals still pushing unpasteurized cider

Oh, unpasteurized apple cider, when will you stop providing food safety moments?

It was 13 years ago last night that U.S. health investigators figured out that unpasteurized juice with apple cider as a base was making people sick with E. coli O157:H7 in the Pacific Northwest region.

On Friday, Amy made a stop at a local plant and produce shop to pick up a pumpkin.

Amy writes:

The woman behind the counter quipped, “It looks like you already have a little pumpkin” motioning towards Sorenne who was hanging off my hip.

As I was paying the woman asked me, “Did you get a chance to have a swig of our apple cider?”

There was a tray with about 10 dixie cups full of cider on the counter. I had looked at them with interest while waiting to pay. I used to love apple cider but Doug has taught me to be skeptical. I asked without thinking, “Is the juice pasteurized?”

The woman looked at me as if to say, of course not, but she said, “No, but there is a preservative in it,” sort of apologetically for the preservative not being natural.

“No thanks then, and especially not for my daughter.” “Oh no!” she replied. “I didn’t mean for her but for you.” I left it at that. I was in a hurry, the woman was helping me to the car with the pumpkin, and maybe she just didn’t know better.

In my mind I was screaming, “Lady, I don’t want to die from your juice either.” I called Doug to thank him for teaching me about food safety. Four years ago I would have unthinkingly and gladly drank the cider. And if I had a child, I would have also offered it to her, not knowing about E. coli or even questioning whether someone in a store would serve me unsafe food.

From the cider files:

In October, 1996, 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Denver drank Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, Calif. She died several weeks later; 64 others became ill in several western U.S. states and British Columbia after drinking the same juices, which contained unpasteurized apple cider –and E. coli O157:H7. Investigators believe that some of the apples used to make the cider may have been insufficiently washed after falling to the ground and coming into contact with deer feces.

In the fall of 1998, I accompanied one of my four daughters on a kindergarten trip to the farm. After petting the animals and touring the crops –I questioned the fresh manure on the strawberries –we were assured that all the food produced was natural. We then returned for unpasteurized apple cider. The host served the cider in a coffee urn, heated, so my concern about it being unpasteurized was abated. I asked: "Did you serve the cider heated because you heard about other outbreaks and were concerned about liability?" She responded, "No. The stuff starts to smell when it’s a few weeks old and heating removes the smell."

Here’s the abstract from a paper Amber Luedtke and I published back in 2002:

A review of North American apple cider outbreaks caused by E. coli O157:H7 demonstrated that in the U.S., government officials, cider producers, interest groups and the public were actively involved in reforming and reducing the risk associated with unpasteurized apple cider. In Canada, media coverage was limited and government agencies inadequately managed and communicated relevant updates or new documents to the industry and the public.

Therefore, a survey was conducted with fifteen apple cider producers in Ontario, Canada, to gain a better understanding of production practices and information sources. Small, seasonal operations in Ontario produce approximately 20,000 litres of cider per year. Improper processing procedures were employed by some operators, including the use of unwashed apples and not using sanitizers or labeling products accurately.

Most did not pasteurize or have additional safety measures. Larger cider producers ran year-long, with some producing in excess of 500,000 litres of cider. Most sold to large retail stores and have implemented safety measures such as HACCP plans, cider testing and pasteurization. All producers surveyed received government information on an irregular basis, and the motivation to ensure safe, high-quality apple cider was influenced by financial stability along with consumer and market demand, rather than by government enforcement.