Calgary·In Depth

Why aren't cattle vaccinated for E. coli in Canada?

As Alberta's cattle industry continues to calculate the costs of the recent international XL Foods beef recall, a Calgary environmental lawyer says he has a solution — vaccinate our cattle.

Health Canada forks out $250M a year to deal with E. Coli 0157-related illnesses, says one expert

Cattle vaccine?

10 years ago
Duration 2:50
A Calgary environmental lawyer calls on Canada to vaccinate cattle against E. coli.

As Alberta's cattle industry continues to calculate the costs of the recent international XL Foods beef recall, a Calgary environmental lawyer says he has a solution — vaccinate our cattle.

Cattle are the primary carriers of E. coli 0157:H7, a dangerous pathogen that can cause serious illness and death in humans.

Coming up tonight on CBC Calgary Local TV News starting at 5 p.m. MT, why one expert says recent class-action lawsuits in the U.S. could spur Canadian beef producers to take action against E. coli at the start of the production chain.

The recent outbreak of the E. coli strand made 18 people sick after they ate meat linked to the XL Foods meat processing plant in Brooks, Alta.

A vaccination is available called Econiche, which is manufactured by a Canadian Pharmaceutical company named BioNiche.

Chris Bolton, who runs Benchmark Labs in Calgary, says he doesn't understand why cattle ranchers are reluctant to control E. coli at the source.

"That is the billion dollar question in Canada right now," he said. 

"The vaccine has been licensed in Canada for a number of years. It is readily available, it is being used internationally. It's just not being used here at home." 

The cost of the vaccine seems to be the primary issue. Each injection costs somewhere between $3 and $5. Each cow would need more than one injection, so the costs add up.

But Bolton says it's an ounce of prevention. 

"We know that Health Canada is spending nearly a quarter billion dollars a year dealing with health issues from E. coli 0157," he said. "If it costs three to five bucks per cow, with 12.5 million cows in Canada, that's a third of the cost of health care in managing E. coli 0157." 

But proper food handling techniques can go a long way toward preventing exposure to E. coli.

All ground meats should be cooked thoroughly, and the Public Health Agency of Canada is encouraging Canadians to cook mechanically-tenderized steak and beef cuts to an internal temperature of at least 71 C — which is roughly "medium" doneness — to ensure that any bacteria that may be present in the meat are killed.

Vaccine studied in the U.S.

But Calvin Booker, a veterinarian with Feedlot Health Management Services, says it's more complex than that.

"There's obviously labour costs associated with handling the animals, there's probably some incremental costs of production associated with not having the animals in their normal environment," he said. 

"So it's tempting to say the cost is just three times the number of vaccine doses that we'd need to use, but in fact the cost is actually quite a bit higher.

Booker also points to the fact that this one vaccine only deals with one strain of one pathogen, so there still needs to be proper controls at the meat packing plants.

Those procedures, he says, are, "effective against a whole wide range of pathogens, including salmonella, including other serotypes of E. coli — not just against E. coli 0157."

"The contention that vaccination would be a simple solution that would make the whole issue go away is neither true nor realistic," said Booker.

There have been large commercial studies in the United States on the efficacy of the vaccine.

Those studies suggest that the vaccine eradicated E. coli 0157 from more than half of the cattle and those cattle that still had E. coli in their guts had 98 per cent less. 

Today, legislation that aims to improve traceability will be voted on for the final time in the House of Commons.

If the Safe Food for Canadians Act is passed, it could more easily allow an E. coli outbreak to be traced back to a feedlot or ranch.

Bolton says that might eventually open up the producer to liability in the case of an E. coli outbreak and encourage the cattle industry to embrace the vaccination.

Health Canada officials are advising consumers to cook mechanically-tenderized beef cuts, like steak, to 71 C or "medium" to ensure bacteria are killed. (CBC)