The Associated Press reports that researchers at Montana State University in Bozeman are looking at whether there is a link between what cattle eat, the strength of their immune systems and a potential to reduce the spread of E. coli bacteria.
A goal of the project, expected to be complete around Thanksgiving, is “pre-harvest intervention” – seeing if problems can be addressed, or even avoided, before the animals reach slaughter, said John Paterson, a beef specialist for the MSU Extension Service.
“We’re trying to do our best to reduce the number of cattle that would shed E. coli,” Paterson said.
The bacteria, supported in the intestines of even healthy animals, can be shed through feces, he said. E. coli can be spread during the slaughter process. Eating contaminated meat not cooked thoroughly can sicken humans.
The researchers are looking at nutrition and whether the strength of calves’ immune systems effects how the animals shed a particular strain, E. coli O157:H7, on the farm.
The research involves 24 calves, each receiving the same amount of protein and energy. Only half receive enhanced diets with additional trace minerals and vitamins, Paterson said.
Researchers led by student Kim Skinner will measure fecal concentrations of E. coli, take liver biopsies to look at mineral concentrations and look at antibody levels in blood samples to help gauge whether the immune system is stronger, Paterson said. Skinner is a graduate student in ruminant nutrition. Paterson is his adviser.
“We’re hoping we’ll see a difference with immune systems, that those with boosted immune systems will shed less E. coli. That’s our hope,” Skinner said. “We’ll have a whole slew of different ideas and research projects we’ll look at if that’s true.”
Tamara Beardsley, a spokeswoman for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said beef products are safe. But she said additional efforts to learn more about E. coli and preventing it in meat are welcome.