Germany’s catastrophic foodborne illness outbreak, caused by a rare but virulent strain of E. coli, raises new concerns about whether federal regulators are adequately addressing similar emerging pathogens in the U.S.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service was petitioned last year to declare additional disease-causing strains of E. coli — beyond the well-known E. coli O157:H7 — as adulterants, a move that would trigger more testing and make the pathogens illegal in meat products. The notice for rulemaking is now languishing in review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), though it is unclear what the remaining issues are.
Regulators at USDA confirmed in a recent Government Accountability Office report that FSIS has developed tests for the six Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) of most concern to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates that the six STECs under consideration cause approximately 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually in the United States.
According to the OMB regulatory portal, the notice is not considered “economically significant,” and “has not been published in a Unified Agenda.”
A USDA official familiar with the process declined to comment on what might be holding up the issue, citing its “pre-decisional” status.
“OMB has basically approached this and said ‘where are the bodies?,’ ” says Monsour Samadpour, a microbiologist and leading food safety expert who believes the government is dragging its feet. “The position we have taken is this: the entire group is pathogenic. It’s like a hand grenade. It can go off at anytime so it shouldn’t be in food.”
Labeling one STEC an adulterant and not another is like “saying a magenta hand grenade is dangerous, but a blue one is not,” adds Samadpour, who is intimately familiar with STECs and the food supply.
Samadpour’s company, IEH Laboratories, was recently commissioned by Marler Clark, publisher of Food Safety News, to detect the prevalence of non-O157 STECs in retail ground beef. In 5,070 samples, IEH found 301 presumptive positives and 96 confirmed non-O157 positives, 30 of which fall within the six strains of most concern to CDC. The study detected one positive for E. coli 0104:H7, which is in the same family as the strain currently wreaking havoc in Europe.
“We are obviously very concerned about this outbreak and are always on the lookout for emerging pathogens,” a USDA official told Food Safety News Wednesday. “We currently test for and have a zero tolerance of E. coli O157:H7. We have developed a method to test for other strains of E. coli identified as the greatest public health concerns. In the wake of this current outbreak, we have to examine how we can best protect consumers from this and other emerging pathogens.”
The foodborne illness chaos in Germany also comes on the heels of an E. coli O111 outbreak last month in Japan. That outbreak — which sickened 90 people, left 23 with hemolytic uremic syndrome, and killed four — was tied to raw beef dish called yukhoe, similar to tartare, popular at barbecue restaurants.
“The tragedies in Germany and Japan should serve as a wakeup call to governments and businesses worldwide. The U.S. is seeing more and more E. coli outbreaks from non-O157 strains,” said Bill Marler, managing partner at Marler Clark, in a release Wednesday. Marler’s firm originally petitioned FSIS on STECs in October 2009.