It's all in the timing

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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In exultation after helping his fellow Ghostbusters defeat the evil god Gozer, Winston Zedmore declares, "We have the tools, we have the talent!" Bioniche Life Sciences, a Canadian company that has developed the first commercially available cattle vaccine against E. coli O157:H7, might be able to make the same claim. What Bioniche doesn’t have, through no fault of its own, is the timing.

The vaccine has been available in Canada since approval by the Canadian government last October, and it will probably receive conditional licensing in the U.S. sometime this year. But Rick Culbert, who heads the company’s food safety division, admitted to MEATPOULTRY.com that current market conditions in the cattle industry have slowed the vaccine’s acceptance. "We are enjoying some market penetration, but there’s no question that since it’s a new cost input, it’s an issue for some producers," he said.

In some ways the Canadian beef industry is still feeling the impact of the closure of the U.S. border in May 2003 when a BSE-infected bovine was discovered in Alberta, which helped spur a decline in Canadian beef-packing capacity. Moreover, both the beef and hog industries north of the border were hard hit last year by an unfavorable Canadian dollar-U.S. dollar value ratio. Factors such as high feedgrain costs that have impacted livestock production on both sides of the border have also hurt margins.

Still, the vaccine is becoming a presence in the Canadian market. "Typically, the early adopters have been affiliated with a brand," Culbert commented. "The vaccine is an extra safety measure for them." Yet meatpackers, he noted, have not yet rushed to pay for the product. "For the most part, packers prefer in-plant microbial controls. They’ve expressed, as an industry, that since they’ve borne the cost of a lot of microbial load-reduction technologies in their plants, it’s time for other segments to do their part."

The vaccine can be used on cattle as young as four months, he said, with an additional dose or two injected later. Three doses cost approximately C$10. Culbert said the vaccine isn’t a replacement for other livestock-management practices but a complement to them. The vaccine works by blocking colonization of a bovine’s intestines by E. coli O157:H7. "It offers a tool to address the E. coli problem at the source that hasn’t been available before," Culbert said. "This strain of E. coli is invisible on the farm. The vaccine is the most effective way we know to combat E. coli right where it begins." However, he cautions that any vaccine "isn’t an absolute control mechanism. But they can be very, very effective tools."

Conditional licensing in the U.S. is pending on Bioniche’s arrangements to manufacture the vaccine in the U.S.

Culbert said he’s optimistic about the vaccine’s eventual widespread use throughout the North American cattle industry. "It’s a function of time," he told MEATPOULTRY.com. "Inevitably, consumers demand what is reasonable to assure the safety of food, of beef." He said Canadian public-health officials have been "very supportive" of Bioniche’s development of the vaccine. While he doesn’t expect to see label declarations on packages of fresh beef indicating that the meat came from livestock vaccinated against E. coli, "I would say that beef from these cattle might command a premium in the market as an element of the entire value proposition the store is offering, especially with identity brands with traceback in place," he commented.

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