Escherichia coli serotype O157 is a virulent human pathogen the global incidence of which has increased. It has been demonstrated that cattle are the primary reservoir of this pathogen. This has serious implications for the land-based disposal of organic wastes such as cattle manure, cattle slurry and abattoir waste. Further, it also has serious ramifications for the protection of surface and groundwater drinking supplies and public access to pasture land.
However, while soil and vegetation can be expected to directly influence the survival of this pathogen, there is a paucity of information concerning the behaviour and survival of E. coli O157 in agricultural environments. It appears that E. coli O157 presently contaminates between 1 to 15% of UK cattle herds, depending on region, and that faecal excretion of the bacterium shows a distinct seasonality which also reflects the incidence of human infections. E. coli O157 can remain viable in soil for greater than 4 months and appears to be a highly resilient pathogen possessing the capability to adapt easily to environmental stresses.
While most human cases of E. coli O157 related food poisoning have been associated with the consumption of contaminated meat and dairy products, there is also evidence that human infection has occurred through the ingestion of contaminated soil, fruit and vegetables and drinking water. In this review the potential threat to human health posed by the application of contaminated organic wastes to soil and possible strategies for reducing the amount of pathogen entering the food chain are highlighted.