As those who follow my blog (and can stand the too frequent updates) know, 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.” And, with the outbreak of E. coli O26 in Cargill hamburger that was announced a few months ago, I frankly fail to see what more needs to be said to convince the President, the USDA and the FSIS to label these bugs as adulterants.
Nearly two years ago – a few days from now – on October 17, 2007 – the CDC and FSIS went so far as to hold a public meeting to consider the public health significance of non-O157 STEC. In the Notice of the meeting, FSIS referred to the “growing awareness that STECs other than E. coli O157:H7 (non-O157:H7 STECs) cause sporadic and outbreak-associated illnesses.”
This brings us to today. We’re nearing the end of 2010, closing in on eighteen years since the Jack in the Box outbreak. Millions of Americans have suffered foodborne illnesses, injuries, and deaths in that time, thousands of them likely due to enterohemorrhagic E. coli other than O157:H7. It is on behalf of those persons that the law firm of Marler Clark has authored the petition to the FSIS requesting the agency to issue an interpretive rule declaring all enterohemorrhagic STEC, including non-O157:H7 serotypes, to be adulterants within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
The petition and supplement 1 and supplement 2, detail 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).
It would be naïve to assume that a change to the FSIS policy will immediately rid the world of all foodborne E. coli infections. It has been unequivocally proven, however, that all enterohemorrhagic E. coli are potentially lethal pathogens that we must fight tooth and nail to keep out of this nation’s food supply. If we trust science, and do our part to push government agencies to enact regulations to require better monitoring, we can no doubt begin to prevent further harm. In the end, after all, the requisite wading through the mess of bureaucracy required to change federal regulation is all worth it, so long as the outcome prevents at least one more case like that of June Dunning, Megan Richards, or Shiloh Johnson.
I guess the question for the Obama/Vilsack/Hagen administrations is when?