For the first time, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has issued a directive for its inspectors on testing and recalling beef contaminated with E. coli O26.

The FSIS Notice 70-10, issued Tuesday, follows the August recall of about 8,500 pounds of ground beef by Cargill Meat Solutions Corp.  The batch of meat was processed at Cargill’s Wyalusing, PA plant; at least one of the suppliers was foreign-based.

FSIS became aware that the meat was contaminated when the agency was notified by health authorities in Maine and New York that three people had been infected with the same, rare strain of E. coli O26 and their illnesses were linked to the ground beef.

The directive is the federal government’s first move since the early 1990s, when it declared E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant, toward expanding the regulation of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (known as STEC).  The directive states: “In the event of a sample positive for either E. coli O157:H7 or E. coli O26, FSIS would request a recall for product that entered commerce.” 

Food safety advocates and some lawmakers have long been urging the USDA to actively test for and halt distribution of products tainted with E. coli O26 and several other disease-causing strains of E. coli (O45, O111, O121, O145 and O103), which, like E. coli O157:H7, are fecal contamination of food and highly dangerous to humans.

To determine the prevalence of these other toxins, Marler Clark, publisher of Food Safety News, sponsored a $500,000 study that found the pathogens in nearly 1 percent of retail ground beef samples.  In October 2009, the firm filed a petition to the USDA requesting a change in policy to label STEC as adulterants. 

According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STEC infections are the leading cause of bacterial enteric infections in the United States. The six previously unregulated strains of toxin-producing E. coli, by CDC estimates, cause 36,700 illnesses and 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year.