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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

The USDA should declare that all illness causing shiga-toxin producing E. coli are adulterants and ban them from the meat supply

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.