In order to help minimize foodborne illnesses throughout the country, scientists at Ohio State University are gathering data about the role wild birds play in E. coli contamination on farms. The goal is to design effective pre-harvest control strategies.
Jeff LeJeune, a microbiologist and veterinary scientist with the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster, leads the groundbreaking study, which concentrates on an invasive nuisance bird whose impact on the propagation of disease-causing pathogens has not been determined: European starlings.
There's strong evidence that these birds harbor E. coli and other dangerous organisms such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, and that they contribute to the spread of pathogens between farms. Studies have found that E. coli O157-H7 strains isolated from European starlings are the same as strains found on dairy farms in close geographical proximity.
"This is the first study about the relationship between European starlings and food safety," says LeJeune. "We need to know how much these birds are contributing to infection on farms to see if management strategies to reduce their numbers or restrict access to livestock-feeding areas are warranted. If you can prevent infection on the farm, you'll positively impact food safety downstream."
Cattle are an important foodborne route of human infection with E. coli via contaminated ground beef and raw milk, and manure is an important environmental source of contamination, which is why we are concentrating our study on dairy farms. This research will also be important to find out whether starlings are contributing to the spread of E. coli on vegetable fields as they fly between dairy farms.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), E. coli O157:H7 (one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli) causes an estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the United States each year. Most of these cases are associated with eating undercooked ground beef, but a growing number of recent E. coli-related outbreaks and recalls have involved fresh vegetables — including the California spinach outbreak that sickened 199 people and killed three last year.