Ever since the Jack in the Box outbreak of 1993, E. coli O157:H7 has been understood as a major public health threat. It was declared illegal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture the following year, and ground beef is now tested regularly for its presence.
But while other strains of pathogenic E. coli have since caused dozens of foodborne illness outbreaks and account for two thirds of E. coli illnesses each year, they have not been regulated by the USDA. Until now. Today the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) called for rulemaking that will give it power to remove meats from the market if they contain any of the six most common non-O157 E. coli, known as the “Big Six.”
What are these six pathogens? A brief history of some of the outbreaks they have caused evidences the danger they pose:
E. coli O26
Strawberries and/or Blueberries (MA)
In 2006, an outbreak of E. coli O26 in Massachusetts was linked to the consumption of either strawberries or blueberries. Six people were sickened as part of the outbreak, and one was hospitalized.
Colorado Correctional Facility
An outbreak of three different types of E. coli (O26, O121 and O84) from pasteurized American cheese and margarine sickened 135 people at the facility in 2007. Ten victims were hospitalized. The illnesses were associated with ill food workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Ground beef, ME and NY
In late August of 2010, Cargill Meat Solutions issued a recall of 8,500 pounds of hamburger meat suspected to be the cause of three E. coli O26 illnesses in Maine and New York. This was the first recorded outbreak of the strain linked to meat.
E. coli O45
New York Correctional Facility
In August and September of 2005, 2.4 percent of the inmates at a North Carolina correctional facility experienced bloody diarrhea. The infections were linked to E. coli O45, which ultimately sickened 52 inmates and food workers and caused 3 hospitalizations.
North Carolina – Farm Animals
An investigation into 11 E. coli O45 infections in 2006 was traced back to contact with goats kept on a family farm in North Carolina.
E. coli O111
Country Cottage Restaurant, OK
In the largest outbreak of E. coli O111 in the U.S., the small community of Locust Grove, Oklahoma was shaken when 341 of its residents, or almost one-third of its population, reported severe diarrhea, and 70 people were hospitalized. Of these patients, 17 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication of poisoning from the Shiga toxins carried by dangerous strains of E. coli. One victim died. Interviews with patients revealed that all of them had eaten at the local Country Cottage restaurant.
Private Wedding Reception, ND
An outbreak of E. coli O111 among people who had attended a wedding in North Dakota in July of 2007 was ultimately linked to ground beef served at the reception. In total, 23 guests were sickened.
E. coli O103
Washington State, Banquet Hall Punch
In January of 2000, a total of 18 people fell ill after attending a banquet in Washington state. Their infections were ultimately linked to drinking punch served at the banquet hall. At least one victim is known to have developed HUS.
E. coli O121
Connecticut Lake Water
In July of 1999, an outbreak of E. coli O121 was associated with swimming in a lake in Connecticut. Of the 11 outbreak victims, three children developed kidney failure as a result of their infections. The outbreak was thought to have originated from fecal contamination from a storm drain that emptied into the beach area.
Wendy’s Restaurant, UT
In July of 2006, Following a luncheon at a junior high school in Harrisville Utah, four people became ill with E. coli O121:H19 infections. The illnesses were linked to iceberg lettuce prepared at the Wendy’s restaurant of North Ogden, UT, which had catered the event. The CDC reported that 42 people were sickened by the outbreak, although it is estimated that over 300 were exposed to the contaminated food. Of the victims, three were hospitalized with HUS.
E. coli O145
Multistate Freshway Lettuce Outbreak
In April of 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 23 confirmed cases of E. coli O145 and 7 more cases possibly linked to the outbreak. Many patients were students at Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and Daemon College in Buffalo, New York. In Ann Arbor, Michicagn, several victims had eaten at the same restaurant. Officials eventually pinpointed shredded romaine lettuce produced by Freshway Foods as the outbreak vehicle.
Zilman’s Meat Market, WI
In January of this year, 7 cases of E. coli O145 were traced to ready-to-eat meat products sold at Zilman’s Meat Market at the end of 2010. Three of the vicitms were family members from Michigan who shared ready-to-eat smoked meat from the deli.