Potential E. Coli Vaccine Sparks Debate Over Cost

A possible E. coli vaccine has those involved debating over the shots’ cost. Although believed to drop levels of the deadly pathogen to negligible amounts, the vaccine and other technologies come with some issues.

Although a vaccine and a feed additive will reduce E. coli levels, they must be given while calves are young and developing to be of any meaningful use, explains USA Today. Also, no one knows who should pay for the preventative measures since those involved believe payers would not realize any direct benefits.

Harvard University researchers estimate that beef consumers in the United States would be willing to pay one-to-two cents per pound to reduce risks for E. coli O157:H7 illnesses. “Common sense plus our paper and many others suggest consumers will pay more for safer food,” said James Hammitt, co-author of a paper on consumer willingness to pay for food safety, said USA Today. The paper appears in September’s edition of the journal Risk Analysis.

Guy Loneragan, a Texas Tech University food safety professor pointed out that while the interventions are good, they are not perfect. “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?'” USA Today reported

Two small companies are moving forward with the technologies, a small feed lot cooperative hoping to vaccinate their cattle “soon” and another cooperative that hopes to prompt retailers nationwide to demand their packers follow suit, said USA Today. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has begun a discussion on the issue, a sign that possibilities are gaining speed.

Elisabeth Hagen, USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, described the regulatory issues surrounding meat and E. coli as “confusing … 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,” according to USA Today.

Pfizer Animal Health introduced a three-shot vaccine in 2010 that is administered when the calf is six months old and which rids 85% of E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in the cattle, said Brad Morgan, senior food-safety specialist at Pfizer. The remaining cattle lose 98% of the bacteria in their manure, Morgan added, said USA Today. Pfizer points out that if only 25-50% of cattle are vaccinated, E. coli rates significantly drop. Hammitt noted that, according to his research, Americans understand food can’t be “perfectly safe” and just want safer food, said USA Today. The vaccine series runs $4-6 per animal.

Probiotics—good bacteria—added to feed help put “the right strain at the right dose” to give “a fairly predictable 40% to 50% reduction in E. coli O157:H7,” says Loneragan, wrote USA Today. The higher doses, which are what experts say are needed, cost $2-$4 per animal, says Loneragan.

The American Meat Institute Foundation, the meat industry trade group’s research arm, says there’s insufficient data on the treatment; others disagree. According to Loneragan, in his studies, E. coli O157:H7 levels were lower in meat from vaccinated cattle.

For now, the question of who will bear the cost remains open.

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