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Information to enhance your success at UNL | UNL Office of Research | Jan. 2012


UNL leads $25 million project
to reduce E. coli

UNL leads $25 million project <br />to reduce <em>E. coli</em>
Jim Keen

UNL will lead a $25 million project to reduce throughout the beef production chain the occurrence of E. coli strains that pose a major threat to public health. 

The project targets Shiga-toxin producing E. coli, or STEC, which cause more than 265,000 illnesses in the United States annually. Eating contaminated food or having direct contact with fecal matter from infected cattle and other ruminants cause most of these illnesses. 

The grant, from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is the largest-ever USDA grant to UNL.

UNL leads a team of 48 scientists from 11 institutions to conduct integrated research, education and extension projects on eight types of STEC. Studies will include the best-known STEC, E. coli O157:H7, along with seven strains that are not as well understood, partly because outbreaks due to these strains are rarely identified. 

UNL and Kansas State University – with 32 scientists – will conduct most of the research, education and extension work for this project. 

"This research has enormous ramifications here in Nebraska and across the nation," said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. "Beef is big business in the state, and the industry prides itself on delivering a safe product to consumers. This project will help ensure the safety of beef products, through the research conducted at participating institutions, the transfer of this knowledge to collaborators in the beef industry and educational programs for consumers." 

"Shiga toxin-producing E. coli are a serious threat to our food supply and public health," said Chavonda Jacobs-Young, acting NIFA director. "This research will help us to understand how these pathogens travel throughout the beef production process and how outbreaks occur, enabling us to find ways to prevent illness and improve the safety of our nation's food supply." 

Jim Keen, a UNL veterinary scientist who leads the project, said there are 500 known STEC, 100 of which can cause illness in humans. This research will focus on the seven most dangerous strains of E. coli, plus a new strain that made its first widespread appearance in an outbreak in Europe in 2011. 

"We will be studying the entire beef chain, from the time an animal is born until the time beef products are consumed," said Keen. He is based at the Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center near Clay Center. Besides Keen, UNL project co-leaders are veterinary scientist Rod Moxley and food scientist Harshavardhan “Reddi” Thippareddi.

Scientists will build on years of research into E. coli O157:H7 by UNL and other institutions as a baseline, Keen said. He noted that O157:H7 is something of an anomaly among STEC because it is relatively easy to culture and study. The other 99 strains of STEC that can cause illness typically come and go without being diagnosed. While large-scale E. coli outbreaks garner headlines, they represent only about 25 percent of infections. The rest are individual or small-scale outbreaks. 

The first step will be to develop diagnostic techniques to determine the presence of STEC in cattle, both pre- and post-harvest. Scientists also will:

  • Study the biological and epidemiological factors that drive STEC-caused illnesses.
  • Develop intervention techniques to reduce STEC risks from cattle, hides, carcasses and beef and devise ways to implement these interventions for all sizes of beef production enterprises.
  • Develop a risk analysis model to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of mitigation strategies.
  • Communicate findings to stakeholders, food safety professionals, regulators, educators and consumers so they can implement efforts to lower STEC exposure. 

About one-third of the $25 million will be devoted to extension and educational efforts, including internship opportunities for university students from across the country, Keen said.

"Part of this project is to help educate the next generation of scientists," he said. 

In addition to UNL and KSU, 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. 

Ronnie Green, Harlan vice chancellor of UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said UNL is well-suited to lead the research. "This collaborative research will enable the University of Nebraska and 10 partner institutions to expand on a long history of high-impact research to ensure the safety of beef products on dinner tables around the world." 

Prem S. Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research and economic development, said: "Today's complex challenges simply demand this kind of large-scale collaborative and interdisciplinary approach. I commend USDA NIFA for funding big, multi-institutional grants to address big problems." 

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