Sheep flocks were tested for Escherichia coli O157 from pooled fecal samples while they grazed on pasture in winter, brassicas in spring, and on pasture during the summer. The winter pasture study reported an average individual prevalence of 3.1% (95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.6–5.6%) and an average farm-level prevalence of 10.4% (95% CI: 2.1–18.8%) over the 3-year study period. The spring brassica study reported a prevalence of 0% and the summer pasture study had an individual prevalence of 6.3% (95% CI: 2.1–12.1%) and a farm prevalence of 36.8% (95% CI: 15.8–57.8%). Analysis showed significant differences between the shedding of E. coli O157 in sheep grazing on brassicas in spring when compared to sheep grazing on pasture in the summer (p<0.01) and in winter (p=0.044; odds ratio [OR]=0.106). Furthermore, sheep excreted a lower prevalence of E. coli O157 in winter while grazing on pasture (p=0.017; OR=0.199). E. coli O157 isolates were characterized using polymerase chain reaction for the presence of known virulence factors; all carried the eae and stx2 gene and 10/11 positive flocks possessed the stx2cgene, suggesting that sheep are a potential source of human infection.
We would like to thank the Food Standards Agency Scotland,
National Farmers Union Scotland, Quality Meat Scotland, and the University of Aberdeen for funding this study. We offer thanks to Professor Charlotte Maltin (Quality Meat Scotland) for suggestions regarding the farm studies and for commenting on the draft manuscript. We also thank the farmers who allowed their sheep to be sampled.