U.S. Regulators may Expand E. Coli Testing

Today, testing of <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/practice_areas/food_poisoning">E. coli by the food industry and the government has only been focused on the most virulent of that bacteria’s strains; however, points out The Associated Press (AP), there are six other, equally serious strains for which testing never takes place.

As a matter-of-fact, said the AP, some two-dozen sicknesses in four states were recently linked to a not-so-common strain of E. coli that was ultimately found in tainted romaine lettuce. In that case, E. coli O145 was the rare and difficult strain of the disease implicated. Because it is more difficult to identify, the disease often goes unreported.

And, a couple of years ago, for example, a ten-year-old required ventilator assistance—one of just 341 victims who fell ill as a result of an E. coli outbreak that was also tied to a rare strain of that pathogen, said the AP.

Industry says that tests are not available for these other E. coli strains; however, food safety advocates have been petitioning the government to increase its regulation of these strains, said The AP. Right now, screening only occurs for the most common strain—E. coli O157:H7.

This strain, and all E. coli, are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces. Some strains are necessary for digestion; however, 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, which includes the virulent, sometimes deadly E. coli O157:H7. E. coli may cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, deadly septicemia, and death, with symptoms that include stomach cramps and watery diarrhea that may turn bloody within one to three days.

The six other, less common strains of this pathogen that are of greatest concern to health advocates are also in the dangerous, sometimes deadly, shiga producing strain and for which testing does not occur. Of note, said the AP, some 73,000 reported illnesses are linked to strain O157:H7; however, this does not take into account the many other illnesses linked to this strain that go unreported. The other six strains of concern comprise about 30,000 reported illnesses annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wrote the AP. A mere five percent of public health labs test nationally for these strains in meat—only O157:H7 is considered by the USDA as an adulterant in meat, which is why it mandates ongoing screening and recalls, said the AP.

In 2009, the CDC made a recommendation that labs test for other dangerous E. coli strains following an outbreak in which one of the untested strains was involved, said the AP.

We recently wrote that the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP) announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), using its recently released tool for calculating the cost of food borne illnesses, estimated that Salmonella and E. coli cases cost the nation about $3.13 billion a year. Specifically, the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimated the cost of E. coli O157 cases at $478.4 million annually, using the CDC’s estimate of 73,480 cases per year from all sources, and assuming approximately 61 deaths. Also using these data, the average cost per case was estimated at $6,510.

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