The momentum seems to be bulding for action by the USDA-FSIS on strains of E. coli that produce shiga-toxins, which cause HUS, other than E. coli O157:H7, the most notorious strain of the bug. Last week, after a meeting with Bill Marler, John Munsell (a former meat packer), and Nancy Donley (who’s son died of E. coli after eating a contaminated hamburger), Dr. Elizabeth Hagen (USDA’s newly announted Undersecretary for Food Safety) signaled FSIS’s intention to take decisive action on non-O157 STECs, which currently are not regulated by the USDA. In a written statement to the New York Times recently, Dr. Hagen said:
In order to best prevent illnesses and deaths from dangerous E. coli in beef, our policies need to evolve to address a broader range of these pathogens, beyond E. coli O157:H7.” She added, “Our approach should ensure that public health and food safety policy keeps pace with the demonstrated advances in science and data about food-borne illness to best protect consumers.
Dr. Hagen later echoed her concerns about non-O157 STECs in remarks at the 2010 National Food Policy Conference on September 23, 2010.
The debate over the regulation of non-O157 STECs centers around several basic issues. First, the beef industry argues that not only are non-O157 STEC strains not nearly as common as E. coli O157 in beef, they are just not very common at all. Second, the industry argues that there does not exist a viable rapid test for the detection of all non-O157 STEC strains. And finally, given the first and second issues, the industry would argue that a mandatory testing program for non-O157 STECs would be misdirected, difficult, and too costly.
Nevertheless, we are only one month removed from Cargill’s recall of 8,500 pounds of ground beef contaminated by E. coli O26 which caused at least three illnesses in New York and Maine. Also, the CDC estimates that "non-O157 STECs (like O26, O45, 0103, O111, O121, and O145) cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year." In speaking about the May E. coli O145 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce, Patricia M. Griffin, chief of CDC’s Enteric Diseases Epidemiology branch, said it is likely that E. coli O145 [and others have] caused previous food poisonings but has gone undetected because only about 5 percent of clinical laboratories are able to detect it. "The fact that we found it now doesn’t mean it wasn’t there before," she said. "The ability to look for the organism in ill people and in outbreaks and food has been increasing. We’re gradually finding more of these organisms."
A series of articles by Andrew Schneider on AOLnews this morning make great reading for any student of this debate. See the three-part series of articles (1) USDA may be ready to take on the other e coli in your beef, (2) Food Safety Lawyer William Marler Puts his Money where your Mouth is, and (3) The "Holy Six" Strains of E. coli that Many Experts Fear.