ANAHEIM–A truly international panel of experts on “the significance and detection of STEC or Non-O157:H7 Escherichia coli” did not even get around to expressing opinions on whether any non-O157 E. coli strains should be defined as “adulterants” in meat during a session at yesterday’s International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) meeting.

If anything, thought, the speakers at the IAFP seem to be saying it might have been a mistake to have focused solely on E. coli O157:H7 for about 15 years because as many as 250 other strains of E. coli went for too long without much notice.

Pina Fratamico, with USDA’s Agricultural Research Station at the University of Georgia in Athens, said that while E. coli O157 infects about 73,000 people annually according to data complied by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, the other shiga toxin-producing E coli account for about 37,000 illnesses.

She said that between the year 2000 and 2006, the number of illnesses due to these E. coli increased by about four times, from 0.12 per 100,000 to 0.42 per 100,000.

Most of the world is dealing with the E. coli O26, O111, and O145 strains of E. coli, according to Fratamico.   There is some variance by country around the world, but E. coli O103, O121, and O45 that fill out the list of the top six in the United States are pretty much impacting the globe.

Since 1984, she said there have been 101 outbreaks of non-O157:H7 E. coli around the world, and 30 of those have been in the United States.   The most recent was the E. coli O145 outbreak associated with romaine lettuce.

Alex Gill with Health Canada questioned whether from a diagnostic and treatment approach it would be better just to focus on Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, period, and not specific strains.

In the United States, only E. coli O157:H7 has been classified as an “adulterant” in meat.   Attorney Bill Marler, on behalf of clients infected with other strains of the pathogen, has petitioned USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to make the top 6 non-O157 strains adulterants in meat as well.   

FSIS has not yet ruled on the petition.

The international panel at IAFP agreed the non-O157 E. coli strains are an “important threat” to public health around the world.

IAFP concludes its meetings today in Anaheim.