Water troughs identified as E. coli sites on cattle farms

In any facility where animals are raised, especially for food production, a considerable amount of effort goes into completing one of many goals: preventing E. coli from getting anywhere it’s not supposed to be.

To a certain degree, E. coli is inevitable; it naturally exists harmlessly in the intestines of people and animals. The problem is shiga toxin-producing strains, which are the kinds we associate with food poisoning.

On the farm, E. coli is spread around by feces. Cow feces not only come into contact with the animals that eventually become beef, but also with leafy greens and produce that isn’t protected by an outer skin. From there, contaminated food products can reach somebody’s dinner plate.

Now, a study coming out of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine shows that on farms, water troughs can facilitate the spread of E. coli among cattle, something that can be hard to detect.

“Farmers do not see a problem because there are no clinical signs in cows; it is totally invisible,” said study author Renata Ivanek.

Over the course of two summers, Ivanek and her research team ran a series of trials, changing feedlot conditions and monitoring what happened. In one trial, they reduced the amount of water in a trough, thinking it would reduce the spread of bacteria. Surprisingly, the opposite was true: reducing water levels increased the odds of finding E. coli in cows by about 30%. Researchers are still trying to figure out why this is the case, but speculate that the lower volume of water allowed cows to swallow debris more easily, or that fuller tanks reduced the concentration of bacteria.

Overall, the bacteria’s prevalence in cattle can vary over the year, with from zero to 100% of cows in a feedlot carrying it. Hotter temperatures tend to increase the prevalence rate.

When consumed by people, shiga toxin-producing strains can cause diarrhea, cramps and vomiting. Most people recover after a few days without treatment, but at-risk individuals (like babies, the elderly, and people who are immunocompromised due to illness) face a greater risk of serious illness or even death. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 63,000 people in the U.S. get sick with the most common shiga toxin-producing strain (O157:H7) of E. coli each year.

With new information about how bacteria moves on their farms, farmers might be able to more easily break the cycle of E. coli contamination by doubling down on their biosecurity efforts, focusing on cleaning efforts on water troughs and other water delivery systems.

Neogen is a leader in offering biosecurity solutions, including cleaners and disinfectants. Neogen also offers sanitation testing products for food processors, including tests for E. coli.

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