A paragraph in this week’s Government Accountability Office report on USDA’s school meal safety policies confirms that the Food Safety and Inspection Service has developed “standardized tests” to detect all six strains of non-O157 E. coli, a critical step in the agency’s ability to regulate pathogens.

“Recently recognized pathogens have been associated with a variety of foods, including meat and fresh produce, that are not addressed either by the commodity program’s purchasing specifications or by federal regulations,” notes GAO in the new report. “Specifically, public health officials have shown that at least six strains of E. coli other than E. coli O157:H7 produce the same potentially deadly toxins and life-threatening illness. CDC has estimated that these strains cause approximately 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually in the United States.”

The report goes on to say that some companies have developed their own tests for the pathogens and that federal agencies have “considered taking action to address them.”

“USDA’s meat and poultry regulatory program has collaborated with industry to develop tests that could rapidly detect six such strains in raw ground beef,” reads the report. “As of February 2011, officials for USDA’s meat and poultry regulatory program said that the department had developed standardized tests to detect all six strains.”

The development is especially notable because USDA officials have in the past cited testing difficulties as one reason for not bringing the strains under federal regulation.

Amber Healy at Food Chemical News (subscription only) drew attention to the language in the GAO report just days after Dr. Richard Raymond and Consumer Federation of America’s Carol Tucker Foreman noted the recent development in a Food Safety News Op-Ed.

Shortly thereafter, Bill Marler, managing partner at Marler Clark, publisher of Food Safety News — whose firm has petitioned USDA to regulate the non-O157 STECs – -fired off a post on his blog.

“The last I heard (a few months ago) was that FSIS was waiting until it had all six tests developed in-house before they would move to deem ‘The Big Six’ (like O26, O45, 0103, O111, O121, and O145) adulterants which those (and other non-O157s) cause 36,000 illnesses, 1,000 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year,” wrote Marler, adding, in an email, that he’s “disappointed” with the agency’s “inaction on a critical public health issue we have the scientific and regulatory capacity to address.”

An agency official said Thursday that FSIS’ timeline for potentially moving forward on the issue remains unchanged, as the rule is still awaiting review at the Office of Management and Budget.