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Letter From The Editor: E. Coli Credit

We’re not sure what more we could have served up during this past week, the first of our third year serving the food safety community.

There was no better package out there on the Obama Administration’s gutsy decision to ban six more virulent strains of E. coli from beef than the one you found in Food Safety News.  A multistate Listeria outbreak from contaminated Rocky Ford cantaloupes grown in Colorado and Cargill’s recall of more ground turkey, followed by increases in the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak were also dished up in multiple servings.

It was a busy week.

We took it as a compliment when Eleanor West writing in Food Republic noted our anniversary, telling her readers Food Safety News “is often helpful,” but added it “might be preferable to read this site when not eating.”  We cannot disagree with that.

The No. 1 story of this past week was clearly the USDA announcement banning six more strains of E. coli from beef. Since 1994, only E. coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant in meat.  Now seven strains are on the banned list with the addition of E. coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145.

In reporting on all that went with declaring the “Big Six” illegal, Food Safety News decided it was time to tell another older story about how O157 was banned from beef almost two decades ago. 

Credit for getting that story goes Helena Bottemiller, our Washington D.C. correspondent.   It happens that Mike Taylor, today’s deputy commissioner for food at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was running USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service back in the Clinton Administration.  He made the first bold decision to ban O157 from beef.

Deputy Commissioner Taylor did not really want to get involved in this little history project, something about not speaking for USDA anymore.  Then Helena dug out an oral history at the Clinton Presidential Library that even Taylor had forgotten had been recorded.  

It was a good read.

Our own Bill Marler, food safety attorney by day and publisher of this news site by night, also deserves some credit for the “Big Six” decision.  His petition, filed on behalf of victims of the non-O157 serotypes, teed up the issue for USDA and, as only Bill can do, kept the pressure on.

From then on, it was all dependent on the people in government. Until Elisabeth Hagen was finally confirmed as USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, there was some doubt about that.  No more.

From the filing of Marler’s petition to this week’s announcement is just the end of the story.   The entire effort to ban the sale of beef with any of these six strains of E. coli stretches back almost two decades.

The timeline really begins with the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak because before then few Americans had even heard of pathogenic Escherichia coli.

We have not included some important science and testing milestones on this timeline, but progress made in those areas was also critical to bringing about an era of safer meat.

1992-93

– Jack in the Box outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infects hundreds and kills four children in the western U.S.

1994

– E. coli O104 infects 18 people in Montana. Four require hospitalization. Pasteurized milk is suspected as the source.

– E. coli O157:H7 is declared an adulterant in meat and E. coli O157:H7 infection was made a reportable disease.

– The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) decision to ban O157:H7 from meat  was upheld when a federal court affirmed the FSIS order to begin sampling and testing for O157, and to declare O157 an adulterant.

The meat industry had sued to try block the rules form taking effect, arguing that notice and comment was required first, and that the agency’s action was arbitrary and capricious. The court rejected both arguments.

FSIS now is able to say that its rule making on non-O157 STECs is no different than what the court said was OK on Dec. 13, 1994.

2000

– Non-O157 STEC infections are made nationally reportable diseases by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  (In the next six years, there will be a four-fold increase in “Big Six” E. coli cases.)

2001

– Food safety is made a non-competitive issue for the meat industry, allowing competing companies to share food safety information.

2007

– Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety, convenes a public meeting on non-O157 STEC sponsored by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS),  FDA’s Centers for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and the CDC.  FSIS for the first time called nonO157 STECs “a cause of sporadic outbreaks and associated illnesses.”

-USDA finds non-O157 strains at comparable levels of O157:H7

2008

-Another USDA meeting is called on “Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli: Addressing the Challenges, Moving Forward With Solutions.”

-A deadly outbreak of E. coli O111 infects more than 300 in Oklahoma with more than 70 hospitalized and one death.   The exact food or water source of the outbreak at the Country Cottage restaurant is never determined.

2009

– A petition calling upon USDA to ban all Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in meat was filed by food safety attorney Bill Marler in October 2009. 

Martler said the petition was filed on behalf of three of his clients — the late June Dunning, who was infected with E. coli O146:H21 from eating Baby Dole Spinach in 2006;  Utah’s Megan Richards whose O121:H19 infection developed into HUS; and Shiloh Johnson, one of the diners at  Locust Grove, OK restaurant who was infected with E. coli 0111 the year earlier.

2010

-FSIS promises “expedited review” of the Marler petition.

-STOP Foodborne Illness, food safety advocates,  also petitions FSIS, asking that the six strains be banned from beef.

-Two more non O157 outbreaks occur, an O111 outbreak at a Colorado prison and a three-state O145 outbreak infects 19 people who ate romaine lettuce.

-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, wrote USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack calling for expanded testing and banning the six strains.

– Walmart, the retail industry giant, announced in April that it would begin testing for the “Big Six” E. coli strains as “another layer of protection for our customers.”

-CDC expresses concern about last of testing in light of the E. coli O145 outbreak, saying such infections are probably being underreported.

-Sen. Gillibrand introduces legislation to amend the Federal Meat Inspection Act to change the definition of “Adulterated” to include E. coli strains that cause human illness.  American Meat Institute says an act of Congress cannot make bacteria disappear.

– The American Meat Institute wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to say that declaring more STECs as adulterants “will result in a regulatory program that will do more harm than good.”

– For the first time in history, a U.S. meat producer recalled product after discovering it might be contaminated with a non-O157 STEC.  On Aug. 28, 2010, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. recalled about 8,500 of ground beef from its Wyalusing, PA processing plant.

A “rare, indistinguishable” pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern had connected a cluste
r of 026 infections in Maine and New York state that FSIS was able to trace back to Cargill ground beef as the likely source.

– The U.S. Senate confirms appointment of Dr. Elisabeth Hagen as USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, making her the permanent head of FSIS after her “recess appointment” about a month earlier by President Obama.

2011

-In January 2011, CDC issued the first estimates for foodborne illnesses specifically due to non-O157 pathogenetic E. coli.  The “Big Six” are annually responsible for 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths in the U.S., according to those CDC figures.

 

– An E. coli outbreak in Japan might not have gotten much attention in the U.S.–even with more than 100 people infected and four deaths.   But that’s if the E. coli pathogen involved was O157:H7, but the culprit in Japan was not O157 but E. coli O111, one of the Big Six.  Raw beef was suspected as the source.

– An outbreak of a rare non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli strikes Germany. Called O104:H4, and its highly virulent with at least 852 HUS cases resulting in Europe.  While only six cases made it to the U.S.– five from recent travelers to Germany — an outbreak of a dangerous, rare strain of E. coil was not comforting news.

© Food Safety News
  • D.

    When you say the e coli was banned from beef, that makes it sound like it was being added in the first place.
    Another good reason to scope out a local rancher and find some grassfed/pasture fed beef if you ask me. We wouldn’t be without ours, nor our pastured chicken meat and the pastured eggs they produce. We have pastured/milkfed pork, too.
    WADC can pass all the bills they want to regarding food, but the fact that no one on the hill or anywhere else understands even basic nutrition is a good reason for them to just stay out of the food business and let people grow their own and buy their own stuff locally. People can learn how to can foods again, it’s not that difficult and gives ones a great feeling of satisfaction. Saves money, too, and limits exposure to BPA.

  • mrothschild

    D: Actually, E. coli is in fact “added” to beef, in that the pathogen is in fecal matter that may contaminate cattle carcasses at slaughter. Both feedlot and grass-fed/pastured cattle can have E. coli in their gut, and shed it in their feces, so if manure is not removed from the meat, it can make people sick (the serogroups of E. coli that can cause human illness don’t make the animals ill, the animals can be perfectly healthy).
    There are many good reasons for choosing grass-fed beef — it tastes good, for starters and buying local beef keeps local farmland in production. But don’t be complacent about the need for sanitary practices to keep pathogenic E. coli out of all beef, local beef or mass-produced beef, as well as the need to cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, as measured by a food thermometer.

  • Mary Rothschild

    D: Actually, E. coli is in fact “added” to beef, in that the pathogen is in fecal matter that may contaminate cattle carcasses at slaughter. Both feedlot and grass-fed/pastured cattle can have E. coli in their gut, and shed it in their feces, so if manure is not removed from the meat, it can make people sick (the serogroups of E. coli that can cause human illness don’t make the animals ill, the animals can be perfectly healthy).
    There are many good reasons for choosing grass-fed beef — it tastes good, for starters and buying local beef keeps local farmland in production. But don’t be complacent about the need for sanitary practices to keep pathogenic E. coli out of all beef, local beef or mass-produced beef, as well as the need to cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, as measured by a food thermometer.