Veterinary and Animal Science

Targeting E.coli‘s Threat to Food Safety

Rodney Moxley

The U.S. beef industry – and the public – are benefiting from a major Nebraska-led effort to improve food safety.

The multi-institutional research and outreach project, launched in 2012, is reducing the public’s risk from Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, in the nation’s beef supply. The broad-ranging project has produced detection, intervention and food safety education techniques to minimize STEC contamination in the supply chain and improve food safety.

Illnesses from STEC should decline as the beef industry and public adopt these methods, said project director Rodney Moxley, Charles Bessey Professor in Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

STEC organisms are harbored by cattle and may enter beef during harvest. Other foods, such as lettuce, can become contaminated by cattle feces or undercooked beef. Most infections resolve themselves, but serious, sometimes fatal, complications can occur. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that STEC-related illnesses cost the U.S. economy about $500 million annually.

The federal government regulates seven STEC strains as adulterants in raw beef, but controlling the bacteria is challenging.

The USDA selected Nebraska to lead a $25 million Coordinated Agricultural Project to tackle the complex issue on multiple fronts. More than 50 researchers at 18 institutions have collaborated. The project is expected to be extended through 2018.

Microbiology student Chloe Buzz

“Nebraska has the highest number of cattle on feed in the country,” Moxley said. “We have the expertise, the cattle industry and the connections to lead this project. We linked up with others, including consumer researchers, to put together a huge team.”

Researchers have developed detection methods to better identify contaminants before they lead to food recalls or illnesses. Two rapid screening techniques, both based on detecting DNA or other molecules unique to toxic strains, offer significant advances over current methods, Moxley said.

Other studies have elucidated STEC biology, baseline contamination levels and STEC proliferation. Researchers also have improved surveillance methods, developed intervention strategies for meatpacking plants and investigated food-handling practices.

The project also targeted education and outreach, helping to train a new generation of food safety researchers and specialists. It provided over 100 internships for students, including those from minority-serving institutions, and developed educational materials for K-12 students and the public, among other activities.

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