Scientist worries about beef research

Changes to how agricultural research is conducted in Alberta have left a former provincial government scientist wondering what the future holds for research relied on by the beef industry.

The province’s new Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) fund has provided more than $700,000 over two years to Kim Stanford, who now has a three-year contract as a research associate at the University of Lethbridge.

Although she is grateful to RDAR for its support, the money will not be used to support new research projects, she said.

“These are just to try to finish off the stuff that I already had going before Alberta Agriculture decided to get out of research.”

RDAR was created in 2020 by the provincial government to be a non-profit, producer-led company operating at arm’s length to determine and fund agricultural research priorities in Alberta.

Stanford worked until last year at the province’s Lethbridge Research Centre, where she was conducting a range of studies on things such as cattle feed and food-borne pathogens. Researchers and technicians were among hundreds of provincial government jobs cut in 2020.

Things such as “agri-food laboratories for food microbiology, parasitology and support services will be reduced or eliminated, although the large majority of positions in the laboratories will remain,” said a provincial statement.

Several former Alberta Agriculture beef researchers now have contracts with institutions such as the University of Alberta, Lakeland College and the University of Lethbridge, said Stanford.

“But all of those are only for a maximum of three years, so I don’t know what happens in the future, and there’s not a lot of beef research capacity really in Canada as a whole, so if there’s more lost, it’s probably completely lost … but I’m hoping that some will be sustained.”

She likened some of her research to a house of cards currently sustained by RDAR “because there are a number of collaborators that I am working with, and they are counting on me to do my part of the project.

“And some of the staff I had within Alberta Agriculture were used as matching funds for some of the stuff, like their part of the project,” she said.

Stanford is collaborating with Alberta Health Services to investigate the relationship between human disease and the persistence of pathogenic E. coli bacteria shed by cattle, said a statement by the University of Lethbridge.

“The most common way to contract an E. coli infection is by eating contaminated food, such as undercooked ground meat or fresh produce that has been contaminated by runoff from cattle farms,” it said. “Better detection of the harmful strains can help improve food safety in meat-processing plants and in fresh produce.”

Some of Stanford’s work involves analyzing the genome of E. coli from cattle to improve detection of pathogenic strains, said the statement. It includes developing a better way to classify strains that produce Shiga toxins, which can cause illness in humans.

She is also conducting research with federal scientists at Agriculture Canada. They are looking at the ability of certain strains of E. coli to form a biofilm that is resistant to sanitizers, leading to the contamination of meat.

Such biofilms involve mats or layers of bacteria invisible to the naked eye that are difficult to kill, said Stanford.

Researchers have found that sanitation procedures for meat-processing equipment actually promote the selection of E. coli that form such biofilms, she said. Such microbes are “always many steps ahead of us,” she added.

Although beef slaughter plants are doing the best job they can to clean their equipment, the problem shows new procedures need to be developed to account for biofilms, “which is not an easy thing to do,” she said.

Biofilms cling to the surface of the nooks and crannies of equipment, making it hard to get rid of them, said Stanford. One potential method involves chilling carcasses at 0 C by using a cold wash to help break up biofilms, she said.

She is also looking at ways to reduce the toxicity of cereal ergot in cattle feed, which can produce symptoms that are hard to diagnose, said the university statement. “It can present like pneumonia, interfere with reproduction or cause tissue death in the tips of ears, tail or hoofs.”

Ergot is a fungus that grows on grain, producing purplish bodies or structures full of toxic alkaloids, said Stanford. Although grain intended for people is cleaned to remove ergot, grain that doesn’t meet standards for human consumption is typically fed to livestock.

Stanford is leading a study that aims to find a simple way to detoxify ergot by potentially using pelleted feed or treating it with heat.

Alberta Agriculture is allowing Stanford access to special provincial laboratory facilities so she can finish her research.

“But it has not been totally easy. There’s been quite a few changes, so it’s been a crazy year with COVID and everything else going on.”

Meanwhile, Stanford will co-host a new series of podcasts to be called Cows on the Planet, which will be partly funded by the Beef Cattle Research Council. It will be aimed at the “general public that’s interested in knowing where their food comes from,” she said.

Topics may range from beef and climate change and how much water it takes to produce a hamburger to beef substitutes and laboratory-grown meat, she said, adding the podcasts will likely start in June.

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