On cue with recent discussions regarding the regulation of non-O157:H7 strains of E. coli, two outbreaks of non-O157 shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) strains have just emerged.

Michigan and Ohio are currently investigating at least 13 E. coli illnesses that have been reported since mid-April, all of which are genetically indistinguishable strains of E. coli O145.

The outbreak, which was first discovered by officials in Washtenaw County, Michigan, has now spread to Columbus-area residents, including several students from Ohio State University. The source is believed to be a yet unnamed Washtenaw County Mexican restaurant.

In addition, eleven inmates at Four Mile Correctional Center may be ill with E. coli O111 infections. Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said three cases have been confirmed, with eight more suspected.

These recent outbreaks are far from the first of their kind. E. coli O145 was one of the strains involved in the 2006 Spinach outbreak which sickened hundreds. Although most victims of the outbreak were infected with E. coli O157:H7, O145 was the strain that eventually led to the death of June Dunning.  In August 2008, an outbreak of E. coli O111 linked to Country Cottage restaurant in Locust Grove, Oklahoma sickened 341 people and hospitalized 70. 17 of those hospitalized required dialysis because of kidney failure, and one man died.

The danger of non-O157 STECs have caused many members of the food safety community, including experts and public figures, to call for the an expansion of existing law that would require meat producers test for potentially deadly non-O157 pathogens.

hamburger7-featured.jpgOn October 5, 2009, the food safety law firm Marler Clark submitted a petition to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to declare all non-O157 STECs as adulterants in ground beef and other USDA-regulated products.  E. coli O157:H7 already is listed as an adulterant.  The designation would allow FSIS to test food for any strain of E. coli and seek a recall if food is found contaminated.

Yesterday, as Food Safety News reported, the petition received some well-deserved support. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to include 6 additional strands of E. coli, including O145 and O111, as hazardous adulterants to be included in testing by USDA.

“The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating,” Senator Gillibrand said in a press release. “We need immediate action to keep our families safe.”