In 2010 there are still lethal strains of E. coli that some parts of our government do not regulate in the food supply. E. coli O157:H7 has been considered an adulterant in food since 1994 by USDA/FSIS, but non–O157 strains, which can be just as devastating, are not. As a result, non-O157 strains of E. coli are not regulated or even regularly tested for in our meat supply.
Currently, there are two separate outbreaks emerging involving the non-O157 strains E. coli O1111 and E. coli O145. More than 50 people have fallen ill since April 7th although neither has yet been linked to a specific food product.
Like their notorious counterpart E. coli O157:H7, E. coli serogroups O26, O111, O145, and others have truly become a major public health problem. Annually in the United States they account for 37,000 illnesses and 30 deaths (Mead et al., 1999; Tozzi et al., 2003; Sonntag et al., 2004). Strains of E. coli O145 isolated from patients with sporadic illness ranked among the top six non-O157 serogroups submitted to the CDC by 43 state public health laboratories between 1983 and 2002 (Brooks et al., 2005). In a recent study that my law firm commissioned to discover the prevalence of non-O157 E. coli in retail hamburger samples, we found that approximately 1.9% of the 1216 ground beef samples tested were positive. And, this was ground beef sitting on store shelves, ready to be purchased and consumed. Serotypes included O26 (n=6), O103 (n=7), O113 (n=1), O121 (n=6) and O145 (n=3) (Samadpour, Beskhlebnaya and Marler (2009). This study is ongoing and final report on the 5,000 samples will be published this summer.
In October of 2009, I filed a Petition with the USDA/FSIS for an Interpretive Rule Declaring all enterohemorrhagic Shiga Toxin-producing serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli), Including Non-O157 Serotypes, to be Adulterants Within the Meaning of 21 U.S.C. § 601(m)(1). FSIS has responded, but has only said that they are considering the Petition. In addition to our Petition, recently the consumer advocacy group Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP) published a Press Release urging FSIS to declare "disease-causing E. coli’s other than O157:H7 as adulterants in beef and begin testing for them." A few days ago, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, urging him “to respond formally to two petitions to the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Services: 1) Petition for an Interpretive Rule Declaring all enterohemorrhagic Shiga Toxin-producing Serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli), including Non-O157 Serotypes, to be Adulterants Within the Meaning of 21 U.S.C. § 601(m)(1) – Petition #09-03; and, 2) S.T.O.P.-Safe Tables Our Priority’s Call to Action and Public Petition.”
Perhaps there will be some movement. It is past time for the USDA to declare that all illness causing shiga-toxin producing strains of E. coli are adulterants and ban them from our food supply.