The 'Holy Six' Strains of E. coli That Many Experts Fear


Third of three

Many food safety experts have long called for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to control six other strains of E. coli besides the banned E. coli 0157 strain found in food.

"Not all of these Shiga toxin-producing E. coli are created equal. Some of those six are just as dangerous as E. coli 0157," said Dr. David Acheson, former assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration and the nation's first "food safety czar."

The "holy six," as they're sometimes called, are the numbered E. coli strains other than 0157 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found caused 70 percent of the illnesses that most frequently showed up in lab tests on sick people.

"There was no reason to pick six except that I looked at it and I said, 'You know, it's hard to remember more than six.' Six is a good number, but there are still some bad actors at 7, 8, 9, 10," Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of the CDC's Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch, told AOL News.

So the six non-O157 strains that are sickening thousands a year are E. coli O26, O103, O111, O121, O45 and O145, and those are in order of frequency, the CDC physician said.

The question most often asked by the meat industry is that if there are so many debilitating strains of E. coli, why aren't the body counts higher.

The 30,000-plus annual illnesses and deaths that the CDC reports may be just the very tip of the iceberg that is E. coli, with the vast majority unreported or undetected. Like all other food-borne pathogen-sparked illnesses, the CDC says the actual number of cases could be 38 to 40 times the number reported.

Why?

Some people just duke it out with food poisonings, fighting the nausea, loose stools and dehydration, grabbing home remedies and over-the-counter medications. For those who seek medical care, most clinical laboratories conduct only the tests they are paid to perform, and when physicians send out stool samples for analysis, they often don't ask for tests for specific pathogens.

"If labs don't look for it, they won't find it, and CDC and the rest of the public health community won't know about it," Griffin said, adding that only a small percentage of clinical labs -- between 4 and 5 percent -- will routinely look for Shiga toxins in the stool of a person with diarrhea.

But the existence of these illness-causing strains is well known, even to the USDA.

Its own scientists from the agency's Agricultural Research Service and the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center documented the non-O157 strains in 1,186 samples of beef trim imported to meet the U.S. demand for lean ground beef. The testing was done on meat from Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay and the U.S.

All the traditional food-borne bad boys were found in the samples, but in addition to the salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and E. coli, the scientists found 99 different strains of non-0157 Shiga.

Between 20 percent and 30 percent of the beef trim sampled was positive for non-0157, and 13 different strains or serotypes were identified, many, the scientists said, for the first time in meat.