When the dangerous organism known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli gets into the food system, it can be deadly.
That’s why more than 50 researchers at 18 different institutions are hoping to find ways to identify and wipe-out the strain in beef, as part of a major USDA-sponsored study. The $25 million project began in 2012 and was recently extended for at least another year.
So far, researchers have found ways to differentiate harmless strains of the E. coli bacteria, which is naturally present in most humans and warm-blooded animals, from the nasty Shiga toxin-producing kind, known as STEC.
The research has also found that certain cattle feeds could increase the presence of the dangerous STEC. Cattle fed large amounts of distillers grains, a corn-based feed that is a byproduct of ethanol production, seem to have more STEC in their digestive tracts, according to the study.
Researchers also think the cell biology of the seven different types of STEC regulated by the USDA as dangerous food adulterants are similar, which makes it easier to use the same identification and mitigation measures on all of them.
“Many of the controls that we have to control one organism will control the rest of them,” says Dennis Burson, an extension meat specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whose research is part of the study. “That was a really big thing to learn,”
Even though they have learned a lot, researchers say they are always wary of organisms morphing into even more dangerous bugs, which could throw off progress and create new challenges. They hope the research projects leads to the development of better tests for STEC in beef that could make the food supply safer for consumers.
Watch the video below for more on the research.