More Than Half-Dozen Strains of E. Coli are Deadly, One is Illegal

Aug 05, 2011   
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A growing number of lawmakers, food-safety and consumer advocates are demanding that all lethal strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli) be declared adulterants when present in meat. There are seven known lethal strains of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli. Shiga toxin enters cells and stops the cells from producing proteins needed to function causing the cell to die. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death.

Currently, E. coli O157:H7 (O157) is the only strain of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli to be singled out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as an adulterant when present in meat. Pursuant to the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), any raw ground meat that tests positive for O157 is declared adulterated and cannot be sold for human consumption. This regulation came in response to the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that sickened over 700 people in the U.S.

However, there are six other non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing strains of E. coli, known as the Big 6, which are not declared adulterants when present in meat. As a result, meat contaminated with the Big 6 can be sold for human consumption. The Big 6 usually require an illness to trigger a recall because the strains are often not tested for. The USDA decided to single out E. coli O157:H7 because it was especially virulent and caused illness when present even in very small amounts of cooked ground meat.

Following the recent E. Coli outbreak in Europe, U.S. Senator Kristen Gillibrand introduced the meat safety bill (S.1157) on June 8, 2011 that would require ground beef manufacturers to test meat for the Big 6 and other high-risk pathogens before and after the meat is ground. The meat safety bill calls for habitual violators to be listed on a public website. The bill is currently in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

Critics of the meat safety bill argue that bacteria are constantly evolving and therefore requiring additional testing would not solve E. coli food safety issues. For example, the European E. coli variant that sickened more than 4,075 in Europe and killed 50 people was not known before this spring and is not part of the Big 6. Critics also note that contamination can be cooked out of fresh meat and additional testing would increase the price of ground beef for consumers.

Fuerst Ittleman will continue to monitor the progress of the meat safety bill and requirements for E. coli testing. For more information, please contact us at