Circumstances have long been ripe for calling all shiga-toxin producing strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli) “adulterants” in our food supply. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is the entity that has the regulatory capacity to do just this, currently has in its possession two citizen petitions to take this action.  In our petition, we state:

Despite strong scientific evidence that many strains of non-O157 STEC are as pathogenic as E. coli O157:H7, FSIS has thus far failed to include all STEC as adulterants under the FMIA.  Recent studies have repeatedly shown that non-O157 STEC is a serious food safety hazard. According to one study, non-O157 STEC are prevalent in beef production systems at rates as high as 70.1%.5 A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study states that non-O157 STEC have been found in ground beef and on cattle hides and feces at levels comparable to E.coli O157:H7.6 Furthermore, European studies indicate that non-O157 STEC infections occur more frequently than E. coli O157:H7 infections.7 With such a ubiquitous presence, the potential risk for harm caused by non-O157 STEC may be on par with, or even greater than, the risk created by E. coli O157:H7. Indeed, another study concluded that “non-O157 STEC can cause severe illness that is comparable to the illness caused by STEC O157.”

Our petition has recently received the support of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). FSIS’s response, to date, is that they are considering the petition. Also currently on the federal government’s to-do list is a Senate vote on S 510 "The Food Safety Modernization Act."  The Food Safety Modernization Act would amend the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act by giving the Food and Drug Administration better authority and ability to monitor the safety of our food supply, and take quicker and more effective action for food companies that don’t adequately protect against foodpoisoning risks.

Readers may ask why these regulatory and legislative measures are ripe for action.

1.  Stephanie Smith

2.  Linda Rivera

3.  252 illnesses nationally linked to salami, black pepper, and red pepper

4.  Millions and millions of pounds of meat products recalled.

5.  HVP recall, which, although it caused no known illnesses, resulted in one of the largest food product recals in history.

6.  About 76,000,000 other reasons every year.

As for the regulatory action that has really got our eye, particularly in the wake of multiple outbreaks linked to non-O157 strains of E. coli. Currently, at least 60 people recently fell ill in Michigan, Ohio, and New York due to infection by E. coli O145. Also last month, at least11 inmates at a correctional institution in Colorado fell ill due to infection by E. coli O111. Word of exactly what food products were contaminated in the Michigan, Ohio, and New York E. coli O145 outbreak has not yet come.

To understand the significance of regulating non-O157 strains of E. coli, a little background information is useful. FSIS’s stated mission renders it “responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.” To promote its mission, FSIS has the power—under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA)—to, among other things, seek the recall of products that have been deemed “adulterated.” FSIS drastically shifted how it interpreted and enforced the FMIA in 1994 when, following the Jack in the Box outbreak, the agency declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant.

The petition details the scientific and legal bases for the requested action, but perhaps more importantly it details the suffering that food contaminated with non-O157:H7 enterohemorrhagic E. coli inflicted upon three individuals: June Dunning, Megan Richards, and Shiloh Johnson. Ms. Dunning, whose infection was caused by E. coli O146:H21, unfortunately succumbed to her illness, passing in 2006. Ms. Richards and Ms. Johnson endured lengthy hospitalizations, kidney failure, and will both endure a lifetime of medical complications as a result of their E. coli O121:H19 and E. coli O111 infections (respectively).