The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should “give a life-saving gift” to Americans this Valentine’s Day by declaring six additional strains of E. coli that cause illness and death as adulterants in beef, a top food safety group says.

Under the law, adulterants are impurities not to be tolerated.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) considers E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in meat.  The Northbrook, IL-based food safety group called Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.) Thursday called on USDA to make six additional strains of shiga-toxin producing E. coli adulterants in meat. 

The six strains are: 026, 0111, 0103, 0121, 045, and 0145.  All have been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta as strains that are associated with illness and death just like O157:H7.

FSIS should declare the six additional strains as adulterants in beef and begin testing for them, S.T.O.P. says.

E. Coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant in ground beef in 1994 in the aftermath of the west coast outbreak that sickened over 700 people and killed at least 4.  It is the only strain of E. coli to ever be banned from beef.

Like E. coli O157:H7, the other so-called “STEC strains” are also found in cattle and get into the beef supply when feces contaminate the meat during slaughter and processing.

”The USDA and CDC have known for decades of the public health risk posed by non-O157 STEC,” says Nancy Donley, president of S.T.O.P.  “In 2000 they mandated public health laboratories report positive test results for these strains.”

Donley’s six-year old son died from E. coli O157: H7-contaminated ground beef.

 S.T.O.P. member, Dana Boner, lost her 14-year-old daughter to E. coli O111 in 2007.  “If anything else but food had killed her, we would be looking for the cause,” said Dana.  “But USDA policy makes it impossible. You can’t find what you’re not looking for, and USDA needs to start actively looking for these pathogens. It’s too late for Kayla, but not too late for others.”

In 2007 and 2008 USDA had public meetings on this issue, but has failed to enact any prevention-based strategy for these pathogens. Instead, USDA declared that it would first conduct testing of ground beef and components to determine the extent of non-O157 STEC and implement a regulatory program if needed. 

Nor has FSIS taken any action on the 470-page petition filed last October by the national food safety law firm of Marler Clark on behalf of its non-O157 STEC clients.  Non-0157 STEC strains should be declared as adulterants under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, according to the petition.

Not doing so, “ignores the grave dangers that scientific and medical research demonstrates” and puts “the safety of American consumers at risk.”

”While S.T.O.P. has no objection to conducting a baseline study, we object to holding up declaring these additional E. coli strains as adulterants in beef,” said Donley.  “We have been urging USDA for years to enact health-based prevention strategies for these killer strains of E. coli.  S.T.O.P. supports many families like Dana’s, whose loved ones have been ill from the non-O157 STEC’s.   The American public is tired, and getting sick, from waiting.”

CDC has required reporting of non-O157 STEC infections since 2000, and has concluded they “poise significant health threat.”  CDC estimates that non-O157 STEC cause an estimated 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths annually.

In 2008, an outbreak of E. coli O111 sweep through the small town Locust Grove, OK, sickening over 300 people, sending many to area hospitals with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), and killing a local man in his 20’s.