Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) is asking the White House Office of Management and Budget to move on a proposal to allow USDA to regulate additional strains of E. coli, beyond the most well-known E. coli O157:H7.

DeLauro sent a formal letter Wednesday to the director of OMB, Jacob Lew, calling for action on the Food Safety and Inspection Service proposal to regulate six more dangerous strains of E.coli. The FSIS proposal under review at OMB has not been made public, but food safety experts expect that the proposal could declare the “Big Six” adulterants or require testing or other interventions.

“This proposed rule has the potential to protect the health of American consumers from preventable and costly foodborne disease because of certain E. coli serotypes,” writes DeLauro, noting that since USDA declared E. coli O157:H7 a pathogen in 1994, it has become clear that there are additional strains of disease-causing E. coli that are hazardous to public health. The CDC estimates that the six Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs) under consideration cause approximately 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually in the United States.

DeLauro points to “devastating health consequences” associated Shiga toxin-producing E. coli: Severe abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, and blindness, as well as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is recognized as the leading cause of acute kidney failure in young children, including infants.

“I am disturbed by the reports that suggest OMB has held up action on this proposal and even more concerned about reports that the Agency may be working to indefinitely delay consideration or fundamentally change the proposal at the urging of those who argue that the action is a threat to financial interests,” continues DeLauro in the letter. “As the public health agency of the USDA, FSIS should not be deterred from its work to protect the public health from known risks in the meat and poultry supply.”

On a call with reporters last week, DeLauro said she was personally pressuring OMB to move forward on the proposal. “It’s a rule that quite frankly is sitting at OMB,” said DeLauro, who accused the meat industry of fighting the rule.

“We know what’s happened in Germany … it’s a different strain,” she added, when asked about the catastrophic Germany E. coli O104:H4 outbreak “We need to be aggressively looking at the other strains.”

The foodborne illness crisis in Germany, which is now the most deadly on record, 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 a 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 (publisher of Food Safety News) in a recent statement. Marler’s firm originally petitioned FSIS to regulate STECs in October 2009.

In Northeast Tennessee, federal and state public health officials are investigating outbreaks involving E. coli O157:H7, E. coli O103, and E. coli O169. 

  • federal microbiologist

    It would not surprise me in the least if the larger packing plants are even now negotiating with their biggest customers – fast food corporations – to implement broader testing for non-O157 STEC on products destined for sale in fast food outlets.
    Needless to say all, the AMI and NCBA posturing and rhetoric about how ‘you can’t test your way to safety’ doesn’t come up in these [confidential] negotiations. If the fast food companies are demanding expanded STEC testing, they are going to get it.
    And needless to say, the packing plants will not perform expanded STEC testing on products destined for the general consumer. They’ll stick to their rote script that doing so is not necessary, a needless burden on their operations, higher prices will be passed on to the consumer, ‘good science’ doesn’t justify expanded testing, etc., etc.
    As Eric Schlosser (the man most loathed and detested by the meat industry and Big Ag) wrote in his 2004 article ‘Order the Fish’, about the Summer of 2002 outbreak of EHEC traced to ground beef issued from the massive ConAgra (now JBS) plant in Greeley, CO:
    “ConAgra conducted its own testing on the product destined to become ground beef — but the company was never required to disclose its results. From April to October 2002, ConAgra’s samples were testing positive for E. coli 0157:H7, on average, between four and five times a week, according to the O.I.G. report.”
    “Although U.S.D.A. inspectors repeatedly cited the plant for visible fecal contamination of the meat, they imposed no punishments and demanded no corrective action. As a result, questionable meat was routinely sold to the general public. ConAgra performed a variety of pathogen tests, however, for its largest customers, such as the two major fast-food chains that bought meat from the Greeley plant. During the publicly announced recall, large customers had secretly returned at least 118,000 pounds of beef from the Greeley slaughterhouse after the meat tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7. ConAgra accepted the meat, and then rerouted it to someone else.”

  • Minkpuppy

    Adding to federal microbiologist comment: When the directive came out instructing the inspectors to look at all microbiological test results performed at the plant, the large processors (meat and Poultry)lawyered up and fought it stating those test results were proprietary information and they weren’t required to provide them.
    The only reason they would not want to provide those results is to hide positives for E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter. However, they will gladly hand the test results over when all is well. They won’t even show the results to the customers that demand the testing–they’ll just ship different product that tested negative so the customer is none the wiser.
    These are the games the meat industry plays and has always played. HACCP changes nothing and improves nothing.