A lesser known form of E. coli — yet to be deemed a contaminant by the United States Department of Agriculture — has caused at least 29 people in Michigan, Ohio and New York to fall ill.
Local laboratories were not prepared to detect the particular strain of E. coli, which has afflicted at least ten people in Michigan.
A May 6 press release from the Center for Disease Control confirmed that shredded romaine lettuce distributed by Freshway Foods of Sidney, Ohio is responsible for the recent E. coli 0145 outbreak at the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and Daemen College near Buffalo, New York.
The investigation into the current E. coli outbreak is ongoing. Freshway Foods said it voluntarily recalled all potentially contaminated products shipped to 23 states, according to a May 6 press release issued by the company.
There have been 19 confirmed cases of E. coli-related illnesses associated with this outbreak — nine of which were in Washtenaw County — with ten others who are potential carriers.
According to the CDC, 12 of the 29 afflicted persons were hospitalized and three developed kidney failure. All of the patients affected by the bacteria reported symptoms of their sickness between April 9 and April 16, according to a Washtenaw County Public Health press release issued on May 6.
Most strains of E. coli do not cause illness, but ingestion of those that produce Shiga toxin — like the E. coli 0145 found in the lettuce — can cause symptoms of illness that include diarrhea and stomach cramping. In severe cases, afflicted patients may contract hemorrhagic colitis — an infection characterized by abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.
The USDA currently only recognizes E. coli 0157 as a harmful bacterial strain, leading most bacterial laboratories to test for only the one type.
Susan Cerniglia, the public information officer for Washtenaw County Public Health, said the lack of USDA regulations on non-0157 Shiga toxin-producing strains may have been partially responsible for the outbreak.
“A lot of (laboratories) didn’t have the capacity in place to detect this bug,” Cerniglia said. “That kind of hampered things.”
Bill Marler, a Seattle-based personal injury lawyer with experience in food-borne illness litigation, said this outbreak could help push the USDA to consider implementing testing regulations for non-0157 strains of E. coli.
“Not that I wish illness on people, but the timing of the 0145 outbreak…is certainly going to get the USDA to have to respond,” Marler said. “Over the last 15 years, there (have been) a lot of cases of ill and sick and dead people who haven’t been linked to E. coli 0157 but certainly had symptoms consistent with an E. coli illness."
According to Marler, testing for other harmful strains would be neither difficult nor unreasonably expensive. The recent outbreak, he said, should serve as a wake-up call.
“If no one forces you to do something, you tend not to do it,” Marler said. “I think government and industry have gotten comfortable doing 0157 testing, and those other bugs are the devil you don’t know. If you’re not testing for it, you don’t find it, and if you don’t find it, you’re not doing anything for it.”
Marler said he was “frustrated and a bit incredulous” that the government still wasn’t testing for non-0157 strains, so he started his own research into the prevalence of these unregulated bugs in 2008.
After hiring a lab to run tests for non-0157 strains in hamburger meat, Marler said the results showed that 1.9 percent of the first 1,000 samples contained the harmful bacteria. The lab, he said, sent the results to the USDA at the time but did not receive a response.
The testing, which extended to 5,000 samples, will conclude in June, and the study’s results will be published in July, Marler said. The results consistently showed that about 2 percent of the meat contained non-0157 strains of E.“(Two percent) may not sound like a lot,” he said. “But if you think about it and extrapolate it…it’s a pretty big number.”
Marler said he filed a petition with the USDA in October last year to label the top five non-0157 strains, including 0145, as adulterants, but the USDA has been slow to respond to the request.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–NY), who is another advocate for regulations in the testing of the other harmful strains, said she has been urging U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to take action on the issue as well.
Marler added that it is crucial to get these regulations in place now because of the way bacteria evolve. In 50 years, he said, 0157 could be one of the less prominent strains and one of the currently unregulated ones could move to the forefront.
“Like they adapt, we have to adapt,” Marler said. “That’s the relationship we have with pathogenic bacteria, and if we don’t adapt, they kill us — that’s their job.”
According to Cerniglia, whether or not the USDA changes its regulations, local labs in Washtenaw County will be more wary of the non-0157 strains in the future. Some labs, she said, will even be equipped to deal with the harmful types of bacteria like E. coli 0145 within the next few months.
“We’re more aware of some of the problems detecting this type of bug,” Cerniglia said.