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Marler Says Regulators’ E. Coli Approach Is Flawed

At a conference in Washington D.C. Tuesday, food safety attorney Bill Marler told an audience of regulatory, nonprofit, and industry heavyweights that the federal government’s approach to E. coli serotypes is flawed.

“From a public health point of view, the CDC-6 approach is flawed,” Marler said.  “We have found some of the more pathogenic serotypes which are not included in the CDC-6.”

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Marler, publisher of Food Safety News, was referring to six E. coli serotypes (026, 045, 0111, 0103, 0121, & 0145) that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says are  responsible for 36,700 illnesses a year.

Unlike O157:H7, those six Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) strains are not considered as adulterants in meat by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). But public health authorities should look beyond the top six non-0157 STEC to other strains that are just as dangerous and likely also causing illness, Marler suggested.

“The prevalence of non-O157 STEC in the retail ground beef supply shows the need for public health agencies in the US to increase awareness regarding these pathogens,” he said.  “The data clearly show that clinical and public health laboratories should routinely screen human and environmental specimens for the presence of non-O157 STEC.”

Marler told the conference, which was sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, about a baseline study his Seattle law firm has sponsored to find out how prevalent the CDC-6 strains are in ground beef sold by retailers.

He said the ongoing work, which began in 2008, is being conducted by IEH Laboratories, also based in Seattle, under an agreement that keeps the names of the meat processors involved from being disclosed.

“Results on 5070 tests have shown 301 presumptive positive and 96 confirmed for non-O157 EHEC and 30 for the six non-O157 E. coli of concern by the CDC. – O26 (n=10), O45 (n=0), 0103 (n=11), O111 (n=1), O121 (n=6), and O145 (n=2),” Marler said. “In addition we also tested the same 5070 samples for Salmonella. One hundred thirty-eight were presumptive positive and 86 were confirmed.”

On a percentage basis, that might not sound like much–just 2 percent for non-O157 strains, and 1.7 percent for Salmonella.  However, every 1 percent of U.S. beef production equals over 260 million pounds, based on carcass weight.

But it was 66 contaminated samples that were neither O157 nor the CDC-6 strains are the flaw that Marler referenced in his remarks.

In late 2009, Marler petitioned FSIS, on behalf of clients infected with non-O157 strains, for a formal declaration to make the CDC-6 strains adulterants. While there has been no action on the petition, FSIS has issued a policy statement saying that meat containing E. coli 026 should be recalled.

These results are consistent with the release earlier this week of a study by Joseph M. Bosilevac of USDA’s Agriculture Research Service and IEH Meat Division CEO Mohammad Koohmaraie, which was also sponsored by the College of Food and Agriculture at King Saud University.

The non-0157 E coli strains are “a significant food safety threat,” according to the ARS-King Saud duo.

Tuesday’s Pew-CSPI conference also addressed antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

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