The E.coli scare in Europe seems to be waking up giant food retailers on the other side of the Atlantic regarding the danger this hitherto considered benign bug can pose to the American consumers. Already facing multiple market recalls of meat products and fresh produce due to dangerous bacterial contamination costing billions of dollars and affecting the very viability of the business, the industry does not want to take any chances on the contingency of a situation similar to that occurred in Europe. Though the existence of six rarer varieties of toxic E.coli was known for a number of years, the regulatory authorities closed their eyes to the potential danger posed by them and did not even bother to develop reliable testing methods for detecting and quantifying their presence in some of the vulnerable foods. Now that the "house is on fire", the urgency of doing some thing is being considered. It is rather sad that the industry is being left with no choice but to take this issue seriously and credit must go to them for implementing voluntary measures for testing all the seven versions of E.coli, considered highly virulent, in some of the most vulnerable products.
"Now, two major American companies,Costco Wholesale and Beef Products Inc., have gotten tired of waiting for regulators to act. They are proceeding with their own plans to protect customers. Last month, Costco, one of the nation's largest food retailers, quietly began requiring its suppliers of bagged produce, including salad greens and mixes, apple slices and baby carrots, to test for a broad range of toxic E.coli. "We know this is where we have to go and there's no reason to wait," said Craig Wilson, the food safety director of Costco. In the last two weeks, he said, most produce suppliers have added a test that can detect the strain from the European outbreak as well. The company also plans to test all of the ground beef sold at its warehouse stores. Costco operates a large ground beef plant in Tracy, Calif., and Mr. Wilson said the plant recently began evaluating testing procedures to detect the broader range of E. coli in the hamburger it makes and the beef trimmings that go into it. As an added step, the company plans to ask suppliers of the trimmings to do their own testing, starting later this summer, he said. Until recently, the produce and beef industries focused E. coli prevention efforts on a single strain of the bacteria, known as O157:H7, which was responsible for scores of outbreaks and recalls. But public health experts have identified six rarer forms, often referred to as the "Big Six," which have increasingly been found to be the cause of illness related to food, including an outbreak in the United States last year traced to tainted romaine lettuce. The devastating outbreak of illness in Europe this spring was caused by yet another rare form of E. coli, O104:H4, which investigators say was spread through tainted sprouts. That strain has not been known to cause illness in this country and it is not on the list of the Big Six, but it was so virulent that it made the food industry take notice. More than 3,900 people were sickened in the German outbreak and at least 42 died, including one American who became ill after traveling to Germany. People infected with E. coli can get bloody diarrhea; severe cases may lead to kidney failure and death. Costco's new testing requirements come as the federal government continues to drag its feet on what to do about the expanding E. coli threat. After four years of study, the United States Department of Agriculture finished drafting rules in January for how the industry should handle the "Big Six" E. coli in ground beef. But the proposal has been stalled within the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews most federal regulations before they are released. Details of the proposal are confidential, but many in the industry expect that the rules would require testing or even make it illegal to sell ground beef that contained the additional strains of toxic E. coli".
It is in the interest of consumers world over that this problem is taken seriously and global efforts are made to evolve agreed protocols to check for these toxic bugs. Is it not amusing that these bugs are selective in their infection sparing most of the developing countries where the hygiene and sanitation conditions leave much to be desired? Or is it because, these bugs cannot survive in an environment, over populated by benign bacterial species that thrive under the tropical conditions which prevail in these countries? Strange it may sound, cleaner the environment, more dangerous is going to be this world! May be, this is an area deserving the attention of microbiologists for unraveling the mystery.