The GAO – U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, released a report (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-257) this week that calls into question what the USDA/FSIS is doing (not doing) presently to reduce the risk of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) in cattle.
The report suggested a number of pre-slaughter interventions that have not been widely accepted by industry:
- bacteriophages (viruses that infect and kill bacteria),
- probiotics (live bacteria that can benefit the digestive system), and
- sodium chlorate (chemical that kills the STEC O157:H7 strain).
The GAO did note, however, that vaccines (biological preparations that alter the immune system) to lessen E. coli O157:H7 in cattle, had been submitted by manufacturers, but the USDA has been slow to provide guidance and approval.
In addition, the GAO found that some foreign governments have practices that could be relevant to U.S. efforts to reduce STEC in cattle such as the following:
- The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union require certain measures, such as verification of cleanliness by an inspector, to ensure that the cattle going to slaughter are clean. In contrast, USDA assesses the health of cattle but does not inspect for cleanliness.
- At least 12 European Union member countries collected and reported data on STEC in live cattle in 2009. USDA has conducted STEC testing in live cattle, but has not tested since 1999.
- When a person becomes ill from E. coli in Sweden, government officials try to determine the specific farm that sold the contaminated cattle so that other carcasses from the farm can be tested for STEC. USDA does not trace the STEC source back to the farm.
All the European measures should be adopted by USDA/FSIS/CDC now. In addition the use of pre-slaughter vaccines should go into full-scale trials. Not only could vaccines lessen E. coli O157:H7 in cattle headed for the slaughterhouse, but also lessen E. coli O157:H7 in cattle near produce growing areas and even those that attend state and county fairs or petting zoos.