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It's called Cargill Meat Solutions, and it could certainly be regarded as one of the most ambitious efforts in recent years to solve meat safety problems by one of the nation's most prominent meatpacking companies.

Cargill, which owns a beef slaughter plant at Schuyler and a beef processing plant at Nebraska City, is positioning itself to test a vaccine meant to protect the meat-eating public from the potentially deadly E.coli 0157:H7.

"We are working with about a dozen feedlots near our beef plant at Fort Morgan, Colorado," company spokesman Mark Klein said from his Minneapolis-St. Paul office. "And, all told, about 100,000 cattle will receive the vaccine and they will go to the plant in the May-September period."

It all sounds very pro-active, but Cargill has a special problem at the same time as it turns to this potential solution.

There's been a spike in E.coli contamination in the nation's red-meat sector lately, and The New York Times has chosen a Minnesota woman's medical ordeal with E.coli-contaminated ground beef as a way to highlight the situation.

The meat supply line that eventually reached her included Cargill.

A near-death experience for Stephanie Smith, 22, included kidney failure, seizures, a three-month-long medically induced coma, and confinement to a wheelchair instead of work as a children's dance instructor.

Her attorney sued Cargill Meat Solutions in December after settlement talks broke down.

Should Cargill's Colorado commitment be regarded as an attempt to clean up its image?

"What happened to Stephanie Smith was terrible," Klein said. "But we've been involved with improving meat safety for years.

"In 1995-1996, for example, we co-developed steam pasteurization, which exposes the surface of beef carcasses to steam. And it's a tool that helps fight the bacteria."

Regardless of the motivation, Cargill's initiative can be expected to command a lot of attention in Nebraska, which leads the nation in red-meat processing.

In particular, it will be followed closely by Rod Moxley and David Smith, part of the veterinary medicine faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and by Alan Janzen, the man in charge at a 13,000-head feedlot at Henderson.

Because of their own research, Moxley and Smith know vaccines can be part of meat-safety measures, although not, so far, with the 99.9 percent effectiveness federal regulators wanted.

"We see greater than 90 percent efficacy against colonization, and that is a measure of how the vaccine works," Smith said.

He called 99.9 percent "an unusually unrealistic expectation" and said "other vaccines that they do approve don't achieve that level of efficacy."

Moxley is trying to be patient with a licensing process that has already consumed what some describe as close to a decade.

"I think it's a step toward putting something in place for producers. These things take time, and they have to be in incremental steps."

Several years ago, Janzen agreed to allow Smith, Moxley and other UNL veterinary researchers to use his Circle Five cattle to try to develop a viable vaccine.

Ultimately, that research helped a Canadian company, Bioniche, get its vaccine on the market in Canada. The Bioniche product is also a candidate for the U.S. market if the company starts manufacturing it on this side of the border.

But now that Janzen has access to a competing vaccine made by a Minnesota company called Epitopix, he's not using it.

"The product that's been put out requires multiple vaccinations or re-vaccinations that don't fit with our current production schemes," he said.

Beyond that, "it's an issue that almost has to be top-down driven. I can do that with my cattle and I can institute that in my program. But it does very little good industry-wide if it's something that the packer is not requiring for a specific line of product or for all the cattle they slaughter."

The reality of meatpacking is that almost all of the E.coli problems are with ground beef, and the ground beef emerging from plants is typically as anonymous and scattered in its origins as corn or soybeans.

Unless the packer has a vaccination program in place - perhaps with a price premium attached - there's no way for Janzen or any other producer to recover the cost of vaccinating. Nor can there be much of a gain made in meat safety.

UNL's Smith said Janzen's position in passing up the option of E.coli vaccine is not unusual. In fact, when asked who's using it, Smith replied: "I don't know of anybody, and I doubt there is anybody unless they're involved with one of the trials."

That's why Cargill's Colorado trial run is so important.

"It has to be an industry-wide decision," said Smith. "If only a handful of producers use the vaccine, it will lose its effect by the time cattle are co-mingled going through harvest."

The company is one of Janzen's purchasing partners and, he said, "they do take direction from their customers."

As he acknowledged, "we've had a resurgence of recalls. It kind of comes and goes."

On the one hand, "the industry has done an awful lot at the processing level."

On the other, "at production, there's been a tremendous struggle to find things we can do that will have a positive impact here."

Reach Art Hovey at 473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com.

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