U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand last week introduced new legislation to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate the six currently unregulated strains of E. coli proven to cause food-borne illnesses. 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 rarer strains, known as non-O157 STECs. The CDC estimates that non-O157 STECs cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year.

E. coli O157:H7 is by far the most common strain in American beef. But non-O157 STECs are increasingly found in beef imported from other countries, but is never checked for since current law only requires imported ground beef to be checked for E. coli O157:H7.

Senator Gillibrand’s new legislation adds the six confirmed strains to the list of adulterants, requires meat companies to test for and discard any batches containing any toxic strains of E. coli, and gives the USDA the authority to find and regulate more toxic strains in the future.

Specifically, Senator Gillibrand’s legislation:

* Amends the Federal Meat Inspection Act to revise the definition of the term ‘‘adulterated’’ to include contamination with E. coli.

* Defines E. coli as “enterohemorrhagic (EHEC) Shiga toxin-producing serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli).”

* Includes the following E. coli strains: O157:H7, O26, O45, 0103, O111, O121, O145

* EHEC was chosen because it is, by definition, pathogenic, meaning disease causing. This strikes a compromise between being overly-inclusive (not all STEC are pathogenic) and under-inclusive (not closing the door on as yet unidentified strains of pathogenic E. coli)

* By expanding the definition of adulterants to other strains, it will require USDA to begin spot testing procedures, force companies (through legal pressure) to test and eliminate the pathogen, and require FSIS to recommend best testing practices to companies.