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Failure to test for six strains of E. coli leaves gaps in nation's food safety network

Two years ago, Bill Marler was contacted by the family of a 13-year-old girl killed by E. coli.

They wanted to sue, and the Seattle lawyer, an expert on food poisoning cases, wanted to help. But the strain that sickened the Ohio teen falls outside federal regulations, with neither government officials nor food manufacturers testing for it.

Frustrated by the dearth of data, Marler hired a private lab to conduct a large-scale, nationwide study of ground beef, a key culprit in E. coli cases. During the past year and a half, that lab has tested 4,600 samples from a variety of manufacturers.

IEH Laboratories, north of Seattle, found that about 1 percent were tainted by six harmful E. coli strains -- including the one that killed the teen -- that are not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Only 5 percent of labs in the U.S. routinely test for them, said Dr. Patricia Griffin, head of food-related epidemiology at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leaving a gap in the food safety network.

But a push is afoot to change that. The CDC has called for stepped-up testing, and on Thursday, Wal-Mart announced a beef safety program aimed at curbing these strains and other pathogens.

That decision comes amid two nationwide outbreaks.

Public health officials in Ohio, Michigan and New York are looking into an outbreak of E. coli O145 that has sickened perhaps dozens of people. In Colorado, 10 inmates were sickened by E. coli O111, the same strain that killed the 13-year-old girl.

Health officials in Ohio and Michigan are testing food samples, but so far no one knows what the culprit was.

"It is a shame that in 2010, after years and years of outbreaks, there are still lethal strains of E. coli that some parts of our government do not regulate in the food supply," Marler said.

In November, Marler filed a petition asking the USDA to declare the six strains harmful adulterants.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chimed in, asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to do the same thing.

"The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating," she said in a news release. "We need immediate action to keep our families safe."

The agency has named only E. coli O157:H7 a hazardous adulterant, requiring testing and recalls.

"It's by far the most common cause of illness and outbreaks," Griffin said.

E. coli O157:H7 causes 73,000 illnesses and 50 deaths every year in the United States. The six other strains -- O26, O45, O111, O121, O145, O103 -- are considered less pervasive, sickening an estimated 37,000 people a year and killing nearly 30. But they could be causing more illnesses that labs don't detect because they're not testing for them.

The USDA is looking at regulating the additional strains. "It was granted an expedited review," said Brian Mabry, spokesman for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

As part of President Barack Obama's emphasis on food safety, Vilsack has ordered a complete review of the USDA's food safety regulations, said Caleb Weaver, the agency's chief spokesman.

"We will not rest until we have eliminated food-borne hospitalizations and deaths," Weaver said.

There are hundreds of strains of E. coli that live in the intestines of healthy cattle and other animals. Most do not hurt humans. What makes O157 -- and the six strains singled out by the CDC -- a problem is that they produce Shiga toxin, which can cause kidney failure.

"We now know a lot about E. coli O157," said William Keene, senior epidemiologist at the state Public Health Division.

Its first big national appearance was in Oregon and then Michigan in 1982 when at least 47 people were sickened by tainted McDonalds' hamburgers.

Then in 1993, 732 people in California, Washington, Idaho and Nevada got sick and four children died after eating undercooked Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers contaminated with O157:H7.

That prompted the USDA to declare the strain a hazardous adulterant.

In his campaign to push for more testing, Marler said Wal-Mart's beef safety plan, which goes into effect starting June 2011, is a step in the right direction.

"I commend them for doing that," Marler said. "I hope that other retailers will follow suit."


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