Last year, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was petitioned to declare six additional disease-causing and potentially life-threatening strains of E. coli, those referred to as non-O157 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STECs) or more succinctly, “the big six,”  as adulterants. Specifically, those six strains include E. coli O26, O11, O103, O121, O45 and O145. Those strains of the E. coli bacteria were targeted because of their capacity to produce the same deadly Shiga toxins as E. coli O157.

Today, despite much controversy and debate and after many months of waiting, those six dangerous strains of E. coli will now be banned from the nation’s meat supply and take their place with E. coli O157 to be classified as adulterants. Accordingly, it will be illegal for meat packers to sell meat contaminated with those pathogens.

William Neuman of The New York Times explained that in his report:

Under the rule, any meat that is found to contain the Big Six E. coli, in tests by government or industry, will have to be diverted for use in cooked products. The bacteria is killed by heating the meat to 160 degrees.

Previously, in 1994, FSIS declared E. coli O157 to be an adulterant an outbreak linked to tainted hamburger patties sold at Jack in the Box restaurants sickened more than 700 people in four states and led to 171 hospitalizations and four deaths. In 2010, in support of the petition to label “the big six” as adulterants, Bill Marler wrote: “the people of this nation do not deserve another Jack in the Box-sized catastrophe as a pre-requisite for currently needed agency action.”

According to a news story by MSNBC health reporter JoNel Aleccia:

The move was hailed as a long-sought victory by food safety advocates, who said they wondered why it took so long to require testing for bacteria that last year collectively caused more infections in the U.S. than E. coli 0157.

“I think what consumers can expect is less contaminated product making it into commerce,” said Nancy Donley, president of the agency STOP Foodborne Illness. “It’s fantastic news.”

Bill Marler, seasoned attorney and food safety advocate, also applauded the move by FSIS as a step in the right direction. In an interview with Aleccia, Marler said, “I am more than pleased. It’s a big recognition that there are other pathogens out there that cause human disease.”

As Aleccia noted in her report:

In 2010, for the first time, those rarer strains of E. coli were responsible for more infections in the U.S. than E. coli O157, according to a June study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The non-STECs caused 451 confirmed infections last year, including 69 people who were hospitalized and one death. E. coli O157 caused 442 infections, 184 hospitalizations and two deaths.

However, CDC officials say many infections are never detected. The agency estimates that overall, as many as 265,000 STEC infections occur each year in the United States, with the non-0157 strains causing up to 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually.

Today’s decision will hopefully serve to better protect the public from foodborne illness. As Elisabeth Hagen, the head of food safety for the Department of Agriculture, told William Neuman, “This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time.” She added, “We’re doing this to prevent illness and to save lives.”