CHICAGO — The pathogenic Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia Coli (pSTEC) serotypes known collectively as the “Big Six” will soon be banned from U.S. meat, a top expert told a meat industry conference Thursday.

Action to declare the six non-O157:H7 serotypes as adulterants in meat could come as early as next week, according to Mohammad Koohmaraie, chief executive officer for the meat division of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group based in Lake Forest Park, WA.

For certain, he says, the Big Six  — O26, O111, O103, O121, O45 and O145 — will be listed as adulterants no later than one year from now. 

The only STEC currently listed as an adulterant is E. coil O157:H7, which has been the most virulent strain in the U.S. for the past two decades.  It was listed as adulterant in 1994 by the Clinton Administration following the Jack in the Box outbreak.

At the concluding day of the two-day “Prevention of E. coli” conference in Chicago, organized by the Reston, VA -based North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP) for the meat industry in the U.S. and Canada, attention turned to the likelihood that more strains will be added to the banned list.

James Marsden, Kansas State University’s E. coli expert, said it will be a mistake if USDA lists more serotypes as adulterants, because it will put both government and industry into a “crisis mode.”

Pointing to recent statements in which Elisabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for food safety, said E. coli policies “need to evolve to address a broader range of these pathogens, beyond E. coli O157:H7” and that “food safety policy keeps pace with the demonstrated advances in science and data about foodborne illness to best protect consumers,” Marsden said the industry should be ready for change.

In anticipation, Costco and Beef Products Inc. have already announced they are going to be testing for the Big Six strains. “I think this is a positive step,” Marsden said. He said the meat industry needs to conduct baseline studies and research on interventions.

“We don’t know a whole lot about it at this point,” said the K State professor.

Much remains to be learned about the six strains, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says cause almost 40,000 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths annually, Marsden noted. His list of unknowns includes:

— the prevalence of pSTECs in nature or the food supply

— whether the interventions that are effective against E. coli O157:H7 will also inactivate pSTECs

— to what extent pSTECs are associated with beef

Marsden would like to see a national baseline study and risk assessment, and research into interventions. He says while it would have to be proven, its’ possible O157 control systems are also effective in controlling the Big Six as well.

No matter what the government does, Marsden says it is in the beef industry’s best interest to tackle the pSTEC issues now rather than wait until it turns into a public health crisis.

Last year brought the first recall of ground beef due to human illnesses caused by E coli O26 in the last 20 years. Fruits, nuts, dairy products and leafy vegetables have been implicated in other outbreaks involving the Big Six, according to Koohmaraie.

A petition calling on FSIS to declare the Big Six as adulterants was filed in October 2009 by the food safety law firm Marler Clark, publisher of Food Safety News.  At the time, FSIS approved an expedited review of the petition. Now FSIS rule-making on the issue is being deliberated — some say delayed — in the Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB).