Currently, there are at least two outbreaks nationally that involve dangerous strains of E. coli that are not E. coli O157:H7.  Michigan and Ohio are investigating at least 13 illnesses that occurred in mid-April, all of which are genetically indistinguishable strains of E. coli O145.  (Incidentally, this was one of the strains involved in the infamous Spinach E. coli outbreak in September 2006, which also included E. coli O157:H7).  And at a Colorado prison, at least 11 inmates were recently sickened with another strain of E. coli:  E. coli 0111. 

These recent outbreaks are just two in a series of outbreaks linked to non-O157, shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC).  Shiga-toxins are what can eventually lead to the devastating condition hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).  As mentioned, E. coli O145 was involved in the 2006 spinach outbreak, and was the strain that eventually caused the death of June Dunning.  And in August 2008, over 341 people were sickened, some critically, in an outbreak of E. coli O111 linked to Country Cottage restaurant in Locust Grove, Oklahoma.  Of these 341 people, 70 were hospitalized, including 22 children.  17 people required dialysis because of kidney failure, and one man died. 

On October 5, 2009, Marler Clark submitted a petition to the Food Safety and Inspection Service to declare all non-O157, shiga-toxin producing strains of E. coli in meat as adulterants per se, as E. coli O157:H7 already is.  The petition is currently being considered, as we recently learned from Dr. Phillip Derfler, Assistant Administrator at the Office of Policy and Program Development.  These recent outbreaks allow little room for the argument that there is no need to take this action.  Non-O157 strains of E. coli certainly are a problem in our food supply.

The petition received some well-deserved support today:

Continuing her commitment to keep all families safe from contaminated food, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today urged U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack to include six additional strands of E. coli as hazardous adulterants that need to be tested by the USDA.

In addition to the most common form of E. coli that is already regulated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified six other strands, known as non-0157 STECs, that are just as hazardous as E. coli and need to be regulated. The CDC estimates that non-0157 STECs cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year.

“In America, in 2010, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety,” Senator Gillibrand said. “It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating. We need immediate action to keep our families safe.”