Consumers have become all too familiar with E. coli 0157:H7, one of the most common culprits behind foodborne disease outbreaks in recent years. Blame for illness and media scrutiny fall first on tainted produce or meat, but the origin of the bacteria is often traced back to cattle, which harms the image of all dairy and beef producers by association.

Stopping E. coli outbreaks at the source – cattle themselves – is the focus of a new three-year research study at Washington State University that is funded by a $1 million grant from USDA. One of the main concepts behind it is the curious fact that while people become sick from E. coli, cattle don't.

"It doesn't bother them," says microbiologist Tom Besser (pictured) who heads up the project. "But that doesn't mean we can't go into cattle and maybe do something to reduce their infection rate with 0157. And we think if we do, then depending on how important cattle are as a source for humans, the human rate should go down, too."

E. coli infects about 70,000 Americans a year, but scientists have yet to learn how to prevent its spread. Health experts have worked on reducing infection rate through better meat handling and food preparation, but since just 10 E. coli cells are necessary to make a person sick, vigilance can only do so much.

Besser hopes to stop the bacteria by focusing on the different types of E. coli that beef and dairy cattle harbor. The study will look for genetic markers that clearly define differences in the five known strains of bacteria, which could be used to take a new look at the effectiveness of different treatments and strategies.