Suzanne Jacobs of the Michigan Daily wrote in her front page story this a.m., “E. coli outbreak at ‘U’ caused by non-USDA regulated strain,” about the failure of most labs, business and health departments to test for pathogenic E. coli other than E. coli O157:H7. I had a long talk with AP on why I thought my petition to USDA/FSIS to deem these other nasty bugs as adulterants (even though this outbreak – involving lettuce – is not a USDA/FSIS regulated product), would in the long run make our food supply safer. Here is most of that interview:

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based personal injury lawyer with experience in food-borne illness litigation, said this outbreak could help push the USDA to consider implementing testing regulations for non-O157 strains of E. coli.

“Not that I wish illness on people, but the timing of the 0145 outbreak…is certainly going to get the USDA to have to respond,” Marler said. “Over the last 15 years, there (have been) a lot of cases of ill and sick and dead people who haven’t been linked to E. coli O157 but certainly had symptoms consistent with an E. coli illness."

According to Marler, testing for other harmful strains would be neither difficult nor unreasonably expensive. The recent outbreak, he said, should serve as a wake-up call.

“If no one forces you to do something, you tend not to do it,” Marler said. “I think government and industry have gotten comfortable doing O157 testing, and those other bugs are the devil you don’t know. If you’re not testing for it, you don’t find it, and if you don’t find it, you’re not doing anything for it.”

Marler said he was “frustrated and a bit incredulous” that the government still wasn’t testing for non-O157 strains, so he started his own research into the prevalence of these unregulated bugs in 2008.

After hiring a lab to run tests for non-O157 strains in hamburger meat, Marler said the results showed that 1.9 percent of the first 1,000 samples contained the harmful bacteria. The lab, he said, sent the results to the USDA at the time but did not receive a response.

The testing, which extended to 5,000 samples, will conclude in June, and the study’s results will be published in July, Marler said. The results consistently showed that about 2 percent of the meat contained non-O157 strains of E. coli.

“(Two percent) may not sound like a lot,” he said. “But if you think about it and extrapolate it…it’s a pretty big number.”

Marler said he filed a petition with the USDA in October last year to label the top five non-O157 strains, including O145, as adulterants, but the USDA has been slow to respond to the request.

Marler added that it is crucial to get these regulations in place now because of the way bacteria evolve. In 50 years, he said, O157 could be one of the less prominent strains and one of the currently unregulated ones could move to the forefront.

“Like they adapt, we have to adapt,” Marler said. “That’s the relationship we have with pathogenic bacteria, and if we don’t adapt, they kill us — that’s their job.”

Rumor has it that USDA/FSIS may finally be taking this issue seriously. We shall see.