A Way to Prevent E. coli Illness

The world may be focusing attention on foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease, but there is a more common human health threat from cattle: E. coli contamination.

Now researchers may have found a way to prevent the spread of the potentially deadly microbe — at the cow's mouth.

E. coli is a bacteria that ordinarily lives inside the gut of human beings, but a certain strain, called O157, can cause bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, kidney failure and even death.

An estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths occur each year in the United States from this bug, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Most people recover from the infection without antibiotics within five to 10 days, but children under 5 years of age and the elderly are particularly susceptible to the kidney problems. The illness can be fatal for them.

Meat Processing Spreads E. coli Contamination

E. coli is most often spread through meat-processing plants, since it also lives in the digestive system of cattle. During meat processing, the bacteria come in contact with meat and can be mixed into ground beef.

Most human infections come from eating undercooked ground beef.

Mike Doyle, head of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, in Griffin, believes the way to limit human exposure to this bacteria is at the source.

"One of the primary problems we have is eating undercooked ground beef," says Doyle. "Cattle are known to carry these types of E. coli 0157 and cattle in particular have been associated with many outbreaks of 0157 infection."

But not all cattle have the dangerous strain of the E. coli bacterium and actually found they had different bacteria, including one that destroyed the bad E. coli.

"What we have done is to isolate the good bacteria that like E. coli," Doyle says. "They produce chemicals that actually will kill E. coli 0157 when the are in the same proximity."

Mixing Bacteria With Cow Feed

By producing these good bacteria and feeding them to cattle along with their normal feed, Doyle and his team have seen the bad E. coli levels drop.

"In our studies to date for E. coli 0157, we can essentially eliminate the organism from 80 percent to 90 percent of the cattle within two weeks after we fed them good bacteria," Doyle says.

Doyle believes this method could greatly reduce the threat of E. coli contamination.

Curt Epstein is a reporter with Science and Technology News Network