A massive recall of Canadian beef is reviving debate over the merits of a national E. coli vaccine, a research project that has intrigued Ottawa for years but has yet to win much take-up from industry.
A vaccine for cattle that would reduce the risk of E. coli to consumers was first invented by a Canadian company and Canada is the first country to license its use.
Bioniche Life Sciences Inc. operates out of a $25-million facility in Belleville, Ont., that received a $5-million contribution from Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz in 2007. Before that, the Liberal government also supported the company with two contracts worth a total of $17.5-million.
In an interview Wednesday, Bioniche's president of food safety, Rick Culbert, said peer-reviewed studies show the product works and is safe for both cattle and consumers. The vaccine is currently only used by small facilities and has also been approved for a petting zoo in Britain.
"It's definitely part of the solution going forward," he said. "Our vision for this is very much one of a global vision, because it is a global problem."
Earlier this year, the company appeared before the House of Commons agriculture committee to make the argument that the federal government should spend $50-million a year to vaccinate all cattle in Canada; the money would be more than recouped through lower health-care costs in treating the symptoms of E. coli.
Still, the price tag would be a hard swallow for Ottawa, especially given that key players in the industry are not convinced that the science is solid enough at this point to warrant a move in this direction. Both the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture expressed reservations about the vaccine, both in terms of success rates and the logistics of administering three rounds of vaccinations.
"There is no silver, magic bullet," said Joyce Van Donkersgoed, a veterinarian and researcher who advises the cattlemen's association.
Carlton Gyles, a professor emeritus with the University of Guelph's Department of Pathobiology and an internationally recognized expert on E. coli, agrees with that assessment. He says studies have shown that the vaccine reduces, but doesn't eliminate, E. coli. And while it is safe for both cattle and humans, he said public-health dollars would be better spent educating Canadians about the importance of properly handling and cooking meat.
"My suspicion is if one had a vaccine that, let's say, eliminated the problem, there'd be enormous pressure on the industry to buy it," he said.
In May, the Commons agriculture committee issued a report that mentioned Bioniche's vaccine.
"A national vaccination campaign would help boost Canadians' confidence in food safety and considerably reduce the annual cost of primary and secondary health care related to bacteria," the report stated, but stopped short of making an explicit recommendation that Ottawa fund such a program.
Because it was not a recommendation, the government never provided the committee with a formal response to the idea.
A spokesman for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the vaccine needs more study, given that its effect on humans is not fully known. "More scientific work would need to be done before deciding to administer a vaccine in all Canadian cattle," Steve Outhouse said in an e-mail.