Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the University of Nebraska and its research partners aren’t going to solve all the mysteries associated with bacterial contamination of beef by snapping their fingers.
Not even with $25 million at their disposal.
But 10 months after University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman announced the largest grant ever awarded to the system's flagship campus by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the wheels are turning on a project that involves 49 scientists and 11 institutions.
Project leader Rod Moxley, a veterinarian and pathologist at UNL, said a diverse research team will be going after shiga-toxin-producing bacteria that are “much, much more challenging” to track down than relatively well-known beef contaminant E. coli 0157:H7.
“These are truly emerging organisms,” Moxley said, “meaning they didn’t exist before. They’re ones that have acquired the capacity to cause serious illness.”
In the bigger picture, he said, “It’s a five-year grant, and we are expected to make as much progress as possible, and we’ve got some pretty lofty goals.”
Although the focus of Nebraska, Kansas State and other collaborators is on beef, it was shiga contamination of bean sprouts that eventually was identified as the culprit in sickening thousands of people and causing dozens of deaths in Germany last year.
The bacterial strain responsible in Europe, 0104:H4, also will get a look in a beef-oriented task in the United States, but only because of the remote possibility of a livestock connection.
“(But) there’s no evidence whatsoever anywhere in the world that cattle have it,” Moxley said.
Just as a detective solves a crime by pounding the pavement, scientists will count heavily on field work to find answers on shiga toxin.
“We will be looking for the prevalence of the organism out on ranches, in feedlots, cattle coming in to slaughter plants -- and not just the prevalence,” Moxley said. “It’s also the concentration of organisms in fecal materials, on hides, potentially in water.”
And applying the tools of biology, microbiology and epidemiology is just one of five major objectives.
The other four are development and improvement of diagnostic tests; intervention strategies before and after slaughter; risk assessment models; and education and outreach to feedlot workers, food preparers and others on the front lines of production and consumption.
As Moxley put it on the education-outreach point, “How can you improve food safety from your end of things where you work?”
When Nebraska won out in a competitive review of proposals over three other finalists -- Pennsylvania State, Texas Tech and Ohio State universities -- Jim Keen was designated as project leader.
The UNL faculty member, veterinarian and epidemiologist has extensive experience with E. coli, both on the university payroll at Clay Center and as a USDA researcher at the Meat Animal Research Center, also at Clay Center.
He had expected to be involved in much of the field work, but Keen said last week he resigned his project position in June. He made no secret of his unhappiness with an administrative decision by UNL to base his support personnel in Lincoln, rather than with him 100 miles to the west.
He said his Lincoln bosses, including Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development, reversed themselves on that point after the grant was awarded.
He offered a copy of his resignation letter, in which he said, “These post-award changes severely undermined my capacity” as project director and also as a researcher.
“I think I worked harder probably on this than anything else in my life,” Keen said in an interview.
An executive management team that includes a pathologist, Moxley and three meat scientists, but no epidemiologist, is not up to the research task, Keen said. “You can’t have podiatrists doing heart surgery.”
Archie Clutter, dean of the agricultural research division at UNL, confirmed Keen’s resignation.
Clutter also said the university had been unsuccessful earlier in finding “a business associate” to work with Keen at Clay Center.
He said David Renter, a veterinary epidemiologist at Kansas State, remains a key part of the research team.
“I would just re-affirm that we have a great group going forward, a great project,” Clutter said. “USDA is excited about it, and we are as well. I’ve interacted with the team, and I know they have a lot of ability -- and Jim Keen is still a valued member of our faculty as well.”
But Keen remains frustrated with a situation in which he said he sometimes worked 100-hour weeks and slept on his office floor to keep up with the demands of putting the project together.
“My experience with UNL,” he said, “is that it’s all about money and control.”
On the matter of where his support staff would be located, “If they didn’t want that, they should have changed it before the project was submitted.”