NY Senator Seeks More E. Coli Regulation

United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is urging U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack to name six more strands of E. coli hazardous adulterants requiring USDA testing in the same way that the most common form of E. coli—E. coli O157:H7—is tested today.

While O157:H7 is regulated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified six additional strands known as nonO157 STECs. These strands, explains Senator Gillibrand, are equally hazardous and must be regulated. As a matter-of-fact, according to CDC estimates, the nonregulated, nonO157 STECs cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths in the United States annually.

As we’ve previously noted, according to the CDC, E. coli is one of the leading causes of food borne illness in the U.S. but estimates could be much higher, because many cases of E. coli poisoning are never reported.

E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces and are normally found in the digestive tracts of cows. Ground beef and other meats can become contaminated with E. coli bacteria during the slaughtering process. Symptoms of E. coli infection include stomach cramps and watery diarrhea that may turn bloody within one to three days. Although some strains of E. coli are actually necessary for digestion; some are harmful, deadly, toxin producing, and part of a group of E. coli called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli, or VTECs, also known as Shiga-producing E. coli.

The E. coli O157:H7 strain is part of this virulent and sometimes deadly group and is often found to be the culprit in E. coli-related food-borne illness outbreak; however, as Senator Gillibrand points out, this strain is not the only strain responsible for these very dangerous outbreaks that are becoming all-too-common in recent days.

“In America, in 2010, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety,” Senator Gillibrand said. “It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating. We need immediate action to keep our families safe,” said the senator on her Web site. The full text of the Senator’s letter can be accessed on her Web site.

The very young, seniors, and persons with weak immune systems, for instance those undergoing chemotherapy or who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, are the most susceptible to food borne illness. And, while most will recover from E. coli poisoning within seven-to-10 days, extreme cases can require hospitalization, dialysis treatments, and blood transfusions, and can result in cystitis, kidney failure, and death by fatal blood poisoning known as deadly septicemia.

NonO157 STECs are increasingly found in beef imported from other countries, but is never checked since current laws only require imported ground beef to be checked for E. coli O157:H7, said Senator Gillibrand. A petition campaign entitled “Safe Tables Our Priority” (STOP) is asking the USDA to expand the official E. coli classifications to include nonO157 STECs as a hazardous, regulated adulterant, and to regulate all strands of E. coli for all types of beef, not just ground beef or beef intended for ground beef, according to Senator Gillibrand’s Web site. The senator’s letter to Secretary Vilsack seeks an official response to the two STOP petitions asking the agency to add the six additional E. coli strands to required testing protocols.

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