Education part of effort to understand disease
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Tom Besser is looking for ways to protect livestock -- and people -- from Escherichia coli O157:H7.
The Washington State University professor of veterinary microbiology recently received a $1 million grant to study the food-borne pathogen and educate science writers and public health officials about it. The grant came from the federal Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.
Besser has worked for the last two decades to determine what can be done to reduce the rate of infection in cattle. Knowing that would reduce the chances of contamination in slaughter plants and elsewhere and may have a beneficial impact on human health.
"It's a rare disease in humans, but it's too high, still," Besser said.
As part of his study, Besser is trying to determine why only about half of the strains of E. coli found in livestock infect humans. People may be exposed to the other half just as often, Besser said, but they don't cause disease.
He will also examine cases in the last 20 years when E. coli infections were successfully treated or reduced in cattle. He wants to learn about how that was done and what methods of housing animals or handling manure were involved.
E. coli does not affect cattle. Any signs of it can only be found by putting manure samples through sophisticated tests. The disease has also been found in other animal species and in uncooked produce.
But when there's an E. coli outbreak and the press covers the event, some of the public health officials and journalists apparently don't understand E. coli, Besser said.
A part of the project is to provide more information about E. coli. Half of the budget is directed toward education. Producers are already aware of the situation, so Besser intends to target science writers and public health officials.
The officials quoted in the papers sometimes provide information that "doesn't accurately reflect the real world," he said.
The disease is common and so easily spread that there's little to tell producers to help them reduce the risk, Besser said.
Washington Cattlemen's Association vice president Jack Field said Besser's efforts might directly improve food safety and economics, if it's possible to find new tools or methods to reduce or eliminate any kind of E. coli threat.
"I think this is something that holds a great level of promise for the entire beef industry," Field said.
To see and hear Tom Besser talk about his research, see the related video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbCE6g44wzs