Scientists are seeking farmers’ help for a nationwide dung sample survey to investigate the prevalence of E coli O157 infection among cattle destined for the food chain.

The survey, to be carried out by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Adas, is part of a much larger study, funded by the Food Standards Agency and led by the University of Edinburgh.

E coli O157, while the most common food-borne illness, is an important threat to humans. It has caused many outbreaks, several of which have led to the deaths of vulnerable people and kidney damage in others.

Animals, particularly ruminants such as cattle and sheep, commonly carry the bacteria. They usually show no ill effects but sporadically will pass the infection on in their dung.

Humans are at risk when they come into contact with surfaces, or items, contaminated with infected dung.

See also: How to treat E coli mastitis in dairy cows

The initial purpose of the confidential survey is to help SRUC epidemiologists update their understanding of how widespread E coli O157 infection is on farms in England, Scotland and Wales in cattle being finished for slaughter.

SRUC and Adas staff will carry out the sampling. Once the initial tests are complete, any positive samples will be sent for examination at a specialist laboratory, where more complex investigations can be made.

“We have written to eligible farmers and will be phoning them over the next year to invite them to take part in the confidential survey,” said Dr Sue Tongue, senior veterinary epidemiologist with SRUC in Inverness. “We need to visit 110 farms in Scotland and 160 in England and Wales.

“It should not cause them too much disruption. The samples will be collected from dung pats on either pasture or in buildings. How many will depend on the number of cattle being kept. We won’t need to handle their livestock to collect the samples.”

Participating farmers will also be asked to complete a questionnaire about the way they manage their cattle, which should take no longer than 40 minutes.

The programme aims to improve our understanding of the types of E coli O157 that are out there and how that relates to human illness.

It will help in the development of strategies to reduce the human health risk of E coli O157.

For more information on the sampling survey, contact Madeleine Henry in Inverness on 01463 246 072, madeleine.henry@sruc.ac.uk.