New methods aim to keep E. coli in beef lower all year

The dead of winter may not be the time when most people’s thoughts turn toward the allure of a hamburger on the grill. But from a food safety standpoint, it’s probably the safest time there is to eat ground beef.

“The theory is that animals are carrying higher levels of E. coli during the summer months, and sometimes they may overwhelm the systems in place to control pathogen contamination in (processing) plants,” says James Marsden, a professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University.

Research has been focusing “on how to level out that curve,” says Marsden, also senior science adviser to the North American Meat Processors Association.

So industry and researchers are turning their sights to new technologies being deployed on the farm, the feedlot and at the slaughterhouse to knock E. coli O157:H7 down to winter levels all year round.

There’s an unconventional mix at the forefront of this fight: bacteria-eating viruses, a paper-bleaching chemical, vaccines and a kind of yogurt for cattle.

The efforts come at a critical time. E. coli continues to make headlines — so far this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture has overseen the recall of 40,000 pounds of beef potentially contaminated with O157:H7. The total for last year was about 2.1 million pounds. In the spring, Congress takes up a new bill targeting food safety.

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