DALLAS - UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas researchers say they've made a huge breakthrough that could one day keep E. coli from ever reaching the table.
Ground meat, unpasteurized milk, cheese, leafy vegetables and lakes and rivers are just a few things that have been traced as the source of E. coli outbreaks last year.
The bacteria is to blame for making 70,000 people sick each year; and E. coli can be extremely dangerous, especially in young kids and the elderly who are the most at risk.
E. coli can cause diarrhea, stroke and kidney failure. For children, other complications can include paralysis, blindness and seizures.
It all goes back to a strain of E. coli called EHEC, which starts with cows and then spreads on the farm.
For four years, Dr. Vanessa Sperandio, with UT Southwestern, has been working with cow samples to figure out how to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses, like E. coli.
"It's too prevalent and it's really hard to detect in food at large," she said.
The focus is on EHEC, a strain of E. coli found in 70 to 80 percent of cattle. While it won't hurt the animal, it can make people deathly ill.
"When the cow manure gets washed away to produce crops that causes the bacteria to be in produce and that's how it ends up on your table," Sperandio said.
Sperandio and her team now believe the answer lies within a chemical in cows. By killing that chemical, they hope E. coli won't spread.
"We think if we can stop the bacteria from living in the cows, which is what we're trying to do, we can stop the bacteria from going to the food supply," she said.
Dr. Ellen Jordan, an extension dairy specialist, who was not part of the research says it sounds promising, but more research needs to be done.
"Sometimes, our preliminary results one may not be affective once we get to larger scale testing or two it may affect our animals in a way we don't want it to," she said. "It may have some other negative effect."
This concept is grabbing attention and was recently published in one of the most prestigious science journals.
It could take a full 10 to 15 years for the idea to go through the final stages of research, regulatory approval and full implementation.
It's not known which way is best to kill the harmful chemical. It could mean injections or simply putting a vitamin of sorts in the cow's food.
E. coli symptoms start about seven days after you are infected. First is sudden and severe abdominal cramps and then diarrhea, which can also make you tired due to a loss of liquids.
One can also have a mild fever or become nauseous.