E.coli, that unassuming fecal contaminant often considered innocuous by itself, seems to be assuming monstrous dimensions with the emergence of the virulent strain O157:H7 which has caused enormous damage to food industry in the US to the tune of millions of dollars worth of product recalls, especially meat products during the last few years. It took some time for the safety authorities to acknowledge the dangers posed by this strain and testing for this contaminant by the meat industry has become routine now before releasing into the market. Probably O157:H7 may as well overtake its other rival Salmonella in future if industry is not careful in harnessing it effectively. When existence of other virulent strains of E.coli was detected some time back no one could foresee that they would also become serious threat so soon. Now comes the news that non-O157:H7 strains have "come of age" as reflected by the reports about recall of 8500 pounds ground beef by the industry in August this year, suspected of contamination from one of these new breeds of pathogens, E.coli 026.
"There are scores of strains of E. coli in humans and animals. Most are harmless, a few even beneficial, but exposure to several strains can be deadly. The government zealously hunts for one strain in particular: E. coli 0157:H7. It can poison you and is the only one that USDA considers an adulterant, something that "contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health," the feds say. But the non-0157 strains -- 026, 0103, 0111, 0121, 045 and 0145 -- do a significant job sickening people. The CDC estimates that each year, at least 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths are caused by these pathogens, which USDA refuses to regulate. The actual number of illnesses may be considerably higher, Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of CDC's Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch, told AOL News last week. The under-reporting may well be due to the lack of laboratories across the country that do pathogen studies that screen for the non-0157 strains, she said, and added that most physicians who send out stool samples from ill patients rarely ask for the test. "Probably only 4 percent to 5 percent of the laboratories used by hospitals and health departments conduct the immunoassay test for the non-0157 strains, so we may be missing most of those outbreaks." Griffin said. For years, food safety advocates, members of Congress and public health specialists within the agency expressed concern over the USDA's apparent indifference to protecting consumers from, at least, the six major non-0157 strains. Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler led a costly personal crusade to draw attention to the need for USDA to consider the strains as adulterants in meat and demand that meat suppliers test for them. Mansour Samadpour, president of IEH Laboratories, had his people in labs across the country collect samples of bulk ground beef from nearby groceries. They analyzed 5,000 samples for non-0157 E. coli and found 1 percent of the beef tainted. When you consider the billions of pounds of burger sold in this country, that's a lot of disease-causing pathogens being served up".
These E.coli variants produce the deadly Shiga-toxin that can be fatal if not treated promptly. Though the risk potential of these microorganisms were known years ago, it was not taken seriously by either the industry or the safety agencies. It should be recalled that it took a number of years to recognize O157:H7 as dangerous, mainly because of the massive food poisoning in 1993 in the US that affected thousands of consumers. Though there have been serious suggestions in the past to research into non-E.coli o157"H7 pathogens, it was only in August 2008 that authorities took note of the risks posed by them consequent to the sickening of 300 people and death of one consumer in the US due to E.coli O111 strain. As recently as in May 2010, another E.coli strain O145 sickened 26 people, again in the US. The sorry part of these episodes is that reliable assay techniques are still not available capable of reproducibility in different labs. As of now consumers are well advised to heat the products to more than 72C, ensuring that this temperature is attained through out the body of the product, before consumption.