Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

It is past time for the USDA/FSIS to deem “the Big Six” E. coli as adulterants

In October 2009 that we filed a “Petition for an Interpretive Rule Declaring enterohemorrhagic Shiga Toxin-producing Serotypes of Escherichia coli, Including Non-O157 Serotypes, to be Adulterants Within the Meaning of 21 U.S.C. § 601(m)(1)” with the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). Since I filed the Petition, I have also filed two supplements (See, First and Second) and provided the FSIS with my private test results.

When I filed the Petition, Mead, et. al., estimated that non-O157 STECs (like O26, O45, 0103, O111, O121, and O145) caused 36,000 illnesses, 1,000 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year. Now, admittedly, not all, or most of these illnesses and deaths were caused by vectors overseen by FSIS, but clearly some have.  However, the CDC new estimates of illnesses caused by non-O157 STECs have risen to over 160,000 ill yearly. Hospitalizations and deaths are lower because many non-O157 STECs do not cause severe illness, but O26, O45, 0103, O111, O121, and O145 certainly do.

Today the USDA/FSIS posted this press release:

e_colio157(1).jpgAlmost everyone knows about Escherichia coli O157:H7, the culprit behind many headline-making outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States. But the lesser-known relatives of this pathogenic microbe are increasingly of concern to food safety scientists.

That’s according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) microbiologist and research leader Pina M. Fratamico. Researchers such as Fratamico, along with food safety regulators, public health officials and food producers in the United States and abroad, want to know more about these less-studied pathogens.

In the past few years, a half-dozen of these emerging E. coli species, also called “serogroups,” have come to be known among food safety specialists as “the Big Six,” namely E. coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121, and O145.

Fratamico and her colleagues are sorting out “who’s who” among these related pathogens so that the microbes can be identified and detected quickly and reliably. The researchers are doing that by uncovering telltale clues in the microbes’ genetic makeup.

Building upon this work, Fratamico and her Agricultural Research Service (ARS), university, and industry collaborators have developed gene-based PCR (polymerase chain reaction) assays for each of the Big Six. With further work, the assays might be presented as user-friendly test kits for use by regulatory agencies and others. Foodmakers, for example, might be able to use such kits for in-house quality control, while public health agencies might rely on them when processing specimens from patients hospitalized with foodborne illness.

Analyses of test results might help researchers determine whether certain strains of Big Six E. coli species cause more illness than E. coli O157:H7 does, and if so, why.

The USDA/FSIS has been studying this issue for years while people continue to become ill.  Tests that work have been available for years – I have $500,000 worth of examples.  The USDA/FSIS has the authority to deem at least the “the Big Six” adulterants despite some in the industry desire to not do so.  It is time to  – past time – to act.

  • doc raymond

    Bill, I hear you and the Safe Food Coalition took your cause to the OMB. Good move. They can provide the cover the Undersecretary will need when she announces the changes. And I do think she will.

  • Gabrielle Meunier

    To to the Folks at USDA and FSIS: the research has already been done. Take action and save lives. PLEASE.

  • Minkpuppy

    Personally, I don’t know why AMI is whining about making all STECs adulterants. The interventions for dealing with them should be exactly the same as 0157. I shouldn’t be all that big of a deal to test for all instead of just one. But then they’re probably afraid that FSIS will find out that the “effective” interventions for 0157 may not be so effective after all.

  • rsrchr

    Would like to see the test results (and supplements) but the links are broken.