New E. coli Strains Being Studied

<"">E. coli is a potentially deadly pathogen, and deadly strain 0157:H7 is certainly the most popular, making headlines regularly for its part in foodborne illness outbreaks; however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) points out what we’ve often said, that this is not the only E. coli strain that can make people sick.

USDA microbiologist and research leader, Pina M. Fratamico, food safety regulators, public health officials, and food producers in the United States and abroad, are concerned about the pathogen’s so-called “serogroups.” These groups—E. coli 026, 045, 0103, 0111, 0121, and 0145—are known as “the Big Six” in food safety circles, said USDA. Fratamico and her colleagues are sorting out the “who’s who” among these related pathogens so that the microbes can be identified and detected quickly and reliably. The work is being completed by research clues found in the microbes’ genetic makeup, the USDA explained.

Fratamico and her Agricultural Research Service (ARS), university, and industry collaborators just developed gene-based PCR (polymerase chain reaction) assays for each of the Big Six. It is hoped that the assays might be presented as user-friendly test for use by regulatory agencies; foodmakers, for quality; and public health agencies, when processing specimens from patients hospitalized with foodborne illness. Test result review could also better enable researchers to determine if these E. coli species are causing more sicknesses than E. coli O157:H7.

As we’ve previously mentioned, while the government heavily regulates E. coli 0157:H7, many non0157 strains are not monitored, although they do cause serious illnesses. As a matter-of-fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths are linked to these pathogens annually. The USDA does not regulate these pathogens, only a limited number of labs actually test for these pathogens, and physicians typically do not call for tests of these E. coli strains; it has long been believed that many more illnesses are likely linked to these six strains.

As a matter-of-fact, an earlier Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. multi-state Class I recall and outbreak was linked to E. coli 026 and the Country Cottage outbreak was initially linked to E. coli 0111. In the case of Country Cottage, one man died, 314 fell ill, and scores of people were hospitalized, with a number of children requiring dialysis.

Not unexpectedly, following the Cargill Meat recall, the American Meat Institute—an industry trade group—wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking it to not seek safety mandates for non0157 strains of E. coli saying that such mandates violate the president’s food safety policies and adding that, “making a pathogen illegal through a policy change will not prevent this pathogen from occurring,” quoted of organization president Patrick Boyle’s letter.

E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces. While some strains are necessary for digestion; some are harmful, deadly, and toxin producing and part of a group of E. coli called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli, or VTECs, also known as Shiga-producing E. coli.

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