10/04/2012 11:59 EDT | Updated 12/04/2012 05:12 EST

Scientists say cattle shots, cleaner feed and radiation would make meat safer

EDMONTON - Researchers believe shooting an E. coli vaccine into cattle, mixing probiotics into feed and zapping boxes of ground beef with radiation are preventative methods the industry should be using to keep the bacteria out of the food chain.

"We shouldn't have to be concerned about the food that we eat making us sick," says Rick Holley, a food scientist at the University of Manitoba. "We should be able in this country to go to the store and buy some food and bring it home, and have every confidence that the meal is going to be nutritious and safe.

"That's a given, as far as I'm concerned."

There has been worry over meat safety in Canada since an extensive recall of more than 1,500 beef products from the XL Foods processing plant in Brooks, Alta. So far, tests have confirmed five people in the province got sick from E. coli bacteria after eating XL steaks.

Bioniche, a company based in Belleville, Ont., produces a vaccine that reduces the amount of E. coli growing inside cattle, thereby limiting the bacteria the animals shed or poop into the environment.

The vaccine, believed to be the first of its kind in the world, was touted as a major breakthrough when it was developed several years ago. But it's not being widely used.

Although the federal government initially helped fund some of the vaccine's production, it's not promoting it. A Health Canada spokesman says officials want more research on how it affects human health.

Rick Culbert, head of food safety at Bioniche, says less than five per cent of Canadian cattle are getting the shots. He calculates that it would cost $50 million a year to vaccinate the national herd, while it costs $200 million annually to deal with E. coli's health effects on humans.

Andrew Potter, director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, helped produce the vaccine. He thinks it's not popular with cattle producers because of the cost.

A cow needs three shots at $3 per dose. Potter says it doesn't make sense for ranchers to pay for a problem that doesn't affect their animals, only people.

"Your cows don't get sick from E. coli, so why should you vaccinate? Why should you lay out a few more dollars to do something that gets you no economic return?"

Potter says the government and the entire beef industry, including meat processors, need to get on board and help fund the shots. In the meantime, he's researching ways to combine the vaccine with other cattle shots so it's cheaper and easier to use.

Mark Klassen with the Canadian Cattlemen's Association says it doesn't just come down to dollars. Producers don't have enough time to give cattle three shots before sending them off to slaughter.

He also points out the vaccine doesn't eliminate E. coli, only reduces the risk. Cattle that have had the shots can still pick up the bacteria if the animals are put into the same feedlots as cows that haven't been inoculated.

Klassen believes other interventions, such as radiation, are more effective. He describes how a machine shoots a beam of safe electricity at packaged boxes of ground beef as they roll along a conveyor belt.

The association has been pushing Ottawa to approve the method for more than a decade and it's in use in the United States. Health Canada cites significant public concern in its decision not to allow the process on meat but has approved it for flour, spices, onions and potatoes.

Klassen says some processing companies have also started using special cleaning solutions to wash cattle hides after the animals are killed. And while the practice is showing promising results, it's not mandatory.

Another idea comes from yogurt. Klassen says his association is funding research into mixing probiotics with feed, the place where cattle pick up E. coli in the first place.

"The idea is you put some friendly bacteria into the feed and they sort of out-compete the E. coli."

Holley agrees science in the food safety field needs to go back to the beginning — feed — instead of focusing on slaughter plants at the end of the line. "I think we've got it ass backwards."

Hiring more meat inspectors at packing plants isn't the solution, he says, pointing out that, per capita, Canada has 10 times the number of inspectors than the U. S.

Government money should instead go to creating the country's first national food-borne illness surveillance system, suggests Holley, who adds it's a "travesty" we don't have one.

"In Canada the food safety system is wholly reactive.

"Whenever there's a problem, we take steps to address the issue and really much of that energy should be used to prevent that problem from happening in the first place."