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USDA Doesn't Regulate E. Coli Strain Linked to Recall

by Andrew Schneider, AOL News

August 30, 2010

A strain of E. coli that the government doesn't regulate has already sickened hamburger eaters in two states.

And federal food safety detectives say more cases may be identified as we approach the summer's last big weekend for picnics and barbecues.

The supplier, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. in Wyalusing, Pa., has recalled approximately 8,500 pounds of ground beef products. Cargill is the nation's second-largest beef processor.

The meat was shipped to Connecticut and Maryland for distribution to other states.

Mike Martin, spokesman of Cargill Meat Solutions, said none of the three people who were reported sickened by the meat needed hospitalization. The meat was sent to BJ's Wholesale Club stores in Maine, Maryland, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, according to the USDA.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service received notice on Aug. 5 from state health and agriculture officials in Maine that they were tracking two patients with food poisoning identified as E. coli 026. Soon after, officials in New York state weighed in with a patient of their own. Other people in the Northeast with similar symptoms are being monitored by health officials.

E. coli 026 can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration and, in severe cases, kidney failure. As with most other food pathogens, the very young, the aged and people with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that PulseNet, its national network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories, linked the illnesses.

As beef recalls go, so far this is small, but if more illnesses are identified and linked to the Cargill meat, it could grow.

Small or not, the Food Safety and Inspection Service had classified this a Class 1 recall, which the government says "is a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death."

There are scores of strains of E. coli in humans and animals. Most are harmless, a few even beneficial, but exposure to several strains can be deadly. The government zealously hunts for one strain in particular: E. coli 0157:H7. It can poison you and is the only one that USDA considers an adulterant, something that "contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health," the feds say.

But the non-0157 strains -- 026, 0103, 0111, 0121, 045 and 0145 -- do a significant job sickening people. The CDC estimates that each year, at least 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths are caused by these pathogens, which USDA refuses to regulate.

The actual number of illnesses may be considerably higher, Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of CDC's Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch, told AOL News last week.

The under-reporting may well be due to the lack of laboratories across the country that do pathogen studies that screen for the non-0157 strains, she said, and added that most physicians who send out stool samples from ill patients rarely ask for the test.

"Probably only 4 percent to 5 percent of the laboratories used by hospitals and health departments conduct the immunoassay test for the non-0157 strains, so we may be missing most of those outbreaks." Griffin said.

For years, food safety advocates, members of Congress and public health specialists within the agency expressed concern over the USDA's apparent indifference to protecting consumers from, at least, the six major non-0157 strains.

Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler led a costly personal crusade to draw attention to the need for USDA to consider the strains as adulterants in meat and demand that meat suppliers test for them.

Mansour Samadpour, president of IEH Laboratories, had his people in labs across the country collect samples of bulk ground beef from nearby groceries. They analyzed 5,000 samples for non-0157 E. coli and found 1 percent of the beef tainted. When you consider the billions of pounds of burger sold in this country, that's a lot of disease-causing pathogens being served up.

Marler paid about $500,000 for the analysis and, earlier this year, Samadpour showed the results of his sampling and his testing method to a group of USDA scientists and regulators.

AOL News talked to two agency experts who attended the presentation. Both called Samadpour's findings "frightening" and proof that the USDA has to do something. However, one of the pair, a longtime food safety expert, said the agency will do nothing until the bodies are stacking up.

The tens of thousands of illnesses that CDC tallied every year is a pretty tall stack, so why is USDA ignoring this?

"The meat industry is extremely powerful, particular the American Meat Institute," Tony Corbo, a congressional food safety specialist with Food and Water Watch, told AOL News on Friday.

"Their lobbyists have been insistent that it is not a problem, and they have put a lot of pressure on USDA not to move forward with declaring these non-0157H7 strains as adulterants."

On Aug. 18, the American Meat Institute wrote a seven-page letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging that the agency not pursue safety regulations and requirement for the non-0157 strains. Organization President Patrick Boyle wrote that it violates President Barack Obama's food safety policies and "making a pathogen illegal through a policy change will not prevent this pathogen from occurring."

There may be hope on the horizon. Corbo, Marler and others pushing for USDA to take actions against these E. coli strains cheered the swearing in last week of Dr. Elizabeth Hagen as undersecretary for food safety.

Previously, she was the chief medical officer at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and people in the agency call her no-nonsense and someone who always puts safety first, especially when it comes to the nation's food supply.

She may get the opportunity to work with a non-0157 outbreak sooner than she or anyone else thought.

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