U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who is quickly becoming a leading food safety advocate in the Senate, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the agency to include six additional strains of E. coli as hazardous adulterants that need to be tested by the USDA.

stec-featured.jpgThe call comes as public health authorities are investigating a multistate oubreak tied to a non-O157 strain of the bug, E. coli O145, as well as an E. coli O111 outbreak tied to a Colorado prison.

The CDC estimates that non-O157 strains of shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year. The USDA is not required to test for strains beyond E. coli O157:H7.

“In America, in 2010, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias, and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety,” Senator Gillibrand said in a statement yesterday.

“It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating. We need immediate action to keep our families safe,” she added. 

Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a foodborne illness victims advocacy group, as well as Marler Clark, LLP, the leading food safety litigation firm, have petitioned USDA to expand the official E. coli classifications to include non-O157 STECs as a hazardous, regulated adulterant.

In Gillibrand’s letter to Secretary Vilsack, she requested an official response to the two petitions requesting that the USDA include the additional strains of E. coli in their required testing.
“These petitions detail the scientific and legal bases for listing non-O157 STECs as adulterants,” reads the letter. “Such listings will avoid the same kind of large-scale disaster that precipitated the 1994 declaration of E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant… In light of current scientific and medical research, the health hazards posed by STEC are undeniable.”

Gillibrand, who noted that she would like to see immediate action taken, also requested a copy of the agency’s response.

Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli

E. coli are members of a large group of bacterial germs that inhabit the intestinal tract of humans and other warm-blooded animals (mammals, birds).  Newborns have a sterile alimentary tract, which within two days becomes colonized with E. coli.

More than 700 serotypes of E. coli have been identified.  The “O” and “H” antigens on their bodies and flagella distinguish the different E. coli serotypes, respectively.  The E. coli serotypes that are responsible for the numerous reports of outbreaks traced to the consumption of contaminated foods and beverages are those that produce Shiga toxin. 

Shiga toxin is one of the most potent toxins known to man, so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists it as a potential bioterrorist agent.  It seems likely that DNA from Shiga toxin-producing Shigella bacteria was transferred by a bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacteria) to otherwise harmless E. coli bacteria, thereby providing them with the genetic material to produce Shiga toxin.

STECs have several characteristics that make them so dangerous.  They are hardy organisms that can survive several weeks on surfaces such as counter tops, and up to a year in some materials like compost.  They have a very low infectious dose meaning that only a relatively small number of bacteria–less than 50–are needed “to set-up housekeeping” in a victim’s intestinal tract and cause infection.

The CDC estimates that every year at least 2000 Americans are hospitalized, and about 60 die as a direct result of E. coli infection and its complications, which include hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. A recent study estimated the annual cost of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses to be $405 million (in 2003 dollars), which included $370 million for premature deaths, $30 million for medical care, and $5 million for lost productivity.

Photo Credit:  This image depicts a highly magnified scanning

electron micrographic (SEM) view of a dividing Escherichia coli

bacteria, clearly displaying the point at which the bacteria’s cell

wall was dividing; Magnification 21674x.  Janice Haney Carr