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San Francisco Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 13:50 GMT
Cattle feed could eliminate 'burger bug'
Graphic BBC
By Jonathan Amos in San Francisco

A cattle feed that could drastically reduce food poisoning cases linked to the "burger bug" E. coli 0157 has been developed by American scientists.

Tens of thousands of people a year get ill as a result of infection by 0157 and other dangerous strains of E. coli. A Scottish outbreak in 1996 claimed the lives of 21 people.

The microbe lives in the gastrointestinal tract of cattle and is passed into the environment in the animals' manure. If the faeces spread on to hides or get into the water system, the bacteria can infect those who handle the cattle and even contaminate meat and other farm products entering the food chain.

Now, researchers from the University of Georgia have isolated friendly bacteria that attack 0157. Cultures of the microbes will now be added to feed to reduce the carriage of 0157 in herds.

Regulatory approval

"We've isolated these friendly bacteria from the intestinal tracts of cattle that do not carry E. coli 0157," said Dr Michael Doyle from the University's Center for Food Safety.

"After a period of about two weeks the friendly bacteria usually out-compete the 0157 and eliminate the 0157 from the animal."

The research was done on calves and grain-fed steers. The effect of the treatment was to eliminate 0157 from 80-90% of the study animals.

A company is now developing a feed supplement which will have to go through further trials and regulatory approval before beginning commercial production. Dr Doyle thought the supplement would be available to livestock farmers within two years.

In the meantime, he said it was prudent for vulnerable groups, such as young children, not to visit farms. He also thought farmers needed to develop more effective processes for dealing with animal waste. US cattle produce 1.36bn tonnes of manure each year.

Combined attack

"I believe we will need combinations of treatments to tackle the problem of 0157 completely.

"For example, there are studies now being done with bacteriophage, the viruses specific to certain E. coli and other bacteria. We may be able to come up with combinations of the phages and our probiotic bacteria that kill 0157."

It is estimated that up to 15% of cattle carry 0157. The microbe first came to prominence in 1982 when people across several states fell ill after eating contaminated hamburgers.

Dr Doyle revealed details of his group's work at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

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The BBC's Matt McGrath in San Francisco
"This treatment does seem to be rather promising"
See also:

22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
26 Jan 99 | Anaheim 99
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