Contamination of the brisket areas of the hides of healthy adult cattle with Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli O157 at slaughter in England was studied. In total, 73 cattle consignments comprising 584 animals delivered to one abattoir over 3 days during 1 week in July 2001 were studied: 26 cattle consignments arriving on Monday, 32 consignments arriving on Wednesday, and 15 consignments arriving on Friday. Consignment sizes ranged from 1 to 23 animals, with a mean consignment size of 8. The hide of the first animal to be slaughtered in each consignment was sampled by using a sponge swab moistened with 0.85% saline to rub an unmeasured brisket (ventral) area (ca. 30 by 30 cm). The process of isolating E. coli O157 from the swabs consisted of enrichment, screening with immunoprecipitation assay kits, and immunomagnetic separation. E. coli O157 was found on 24 of 73 (32.9%) cattle hides examined, and 21 of these 24 isolates produced Shiga toxins. The 24 E. coli O157 isolates produced six different pulsed-field gel electrophoresis profiles, and 18 (75%) of the isolates were of one prevalent clone. The high prevalence of one E. coli O157 clone on the hides of cattle at slaughter could be due to a high prevalence of that clone on the 18 farms involved (not investigated in the current study), in the postfarm transport or lairage environments, or both. Since the lairage environment, but not the farm of origin or the postfarm transport vehicle, was a factor common to all 18 cattle consignments, it could have played an important role in spreading the prevalent E. coli O157 clone to the cattle hides. Lairage pen floors and the stunning box floor were identified as the most probable sites along the unloading-to-slaughter route at which the brisket areas of cattle hides could become contaminated.

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