On Monday, a Canadian biopharmaceutical company, Bioniche Life Sciences, Inc., announced it has received full licensing approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)—an analogue to the USDA—for the world’s first cattle vaccine designed to reduce the shedding of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle feces.

The vaccine works by preventing the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria from attaching to the intestines of the cattle. This, in turn, reduces reproduction of the bacteria within the intestines and leads to a reduced quantity of bacteria released through the cattle’s feces into the environment. It is this release of bacteria that ultimately leads to human infections of E. coli O157:H7 through food and water contamination. 

This vaccine may also help reduce the risk of E. coli O157:H7 infections through contact with farm animals at petting zoos and agricultural exhibitions, and with E. coli O157:H7-contaminated water runoff flowing into fresh produce fields (see Dole and Natural Selections spinach outbreak, or the more recent Aunt Mid’s lettuce outbreak.

Bioniche is currently working to meet the USDA’s requirements for a conditional license to bring the vaccine to the US.  The USDA informed Bioniche this past February that the latest data “meets the ‘expectation of efficacy’ standard” and is eligible for a conditional license, provided that Bioniche develops a plan “that would collect sufficient data to move the product to full licensure.”

The vaccine sounds like a great step towards potentially reducing the thousands of kids and elderly folks (the two most affected demographics) who become infected by E. coli O157:H7 each year. I cannot help but wonder, however, what effect this vaccine will have on current slaughter practices. With regard to meat contamination, the real problem is not solely with cattle that shed a bacteria naturally existing within their intestinal tracts, but rather with the high-speed slaughtering operations (over 300 cattle slaughtered per hour is not uncommon) that take inadequate precautions to ensure feces is not sprayed onto raw meat during the mind-bogglingly fast slaughter line. Despite beef industry claims to the contrary, it IS very possible to produce feces-free (and therefore E. coli-free) beef. So even with this very important vaccine coming to the market, my hope is for beef slaughter operations to slow down, and to continue improving and testing the adequacy of their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans so that fecal contamination of meat does not occur in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer my meat both feces AND E. coli O157:H7 free.