— The mother of a 10-year-old girl critically sickened by an outbreak of a rare strain of E. coli bacteria welcomed the news this week that the government will soon start screening for that bug and five other new pathogens in the nation’s beef supply.
“I’m still kind of in shock. I couldn’t at first believe that they really did it,” said Belinda Johnson, 40, of Pryor, Okla., whose daughter, Shiloh, now 13, spent 38 days in a pediatric intensive care unit after an infection caused by E. coli O111 in 2008.
“This could save so many lives,” she added.
On Tuesday, federal agriculture officials confirmed that inspectors next spring will begin testing samples of beef trim for six strains of E. coli capable of producing toxins that cause infection and death. The move expands long-standing federal rules that ban the better-known E. coli O157:H7 strain linked to illnesses from undercooked meat.
"This is a really significant step forward for American families," said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety, speaking to reporters. "This is about preventing illness. This is about saving lives."
Shiloh Johnson was among a small group of victims and family members who petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture in 2009 to classify six strains of so-called shiga-toxin producing E. coli, known as STECs, as adulterants subject to testing and ban.
The strains include E. coli O26, O45, O103, O111, O121 and O145, known as "the big six," which collectively are estimated to cause about 113,000 infections and 300 hospitalizations each year. In 2010, the non-O157 STECs caused more infections than the dominant strain of E. coli, and CDC officials estimate that the bugs might caused foodborne illness at twice the rate of E. coli O157.
When the USDA didn’t respond in a timely fashion, the Seattle food safety law firm representing Shiloh and the others, Marler Clark of Seattle, threatened to sue the agency for denying the petition.
It’s not clear how the petition and other efforts by food safety advocates to pressure USDA into expanding its rules about non-O157s figured into the long-delayed decision this week. The new rules were reportedly drafted as early as January, but were held up for review at the Office of Management and Budget.
Still, consumer advocates praised the change, saying it will make the food supply safer.
"By classifying these dangerous pathogens as adulterants, the USDA is adopting a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy toward E. coli in meat that we have long fought for,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union. “These strains of E. coli have been identified for years as causing serious illness and even death. This higher standard will help to ensure that disease causing food is kept off store shelves and out of consumers’ homes.”
Meat industry opposes change
However, meat industry officials said the move was not based on sound science and that the testing already in place for E. coli O157:H7 was adequate to protect against the other pathogens.
"Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars — costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers. It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy," James H. Hodges, executive vice president of the American Meat Institute, said in a statement.
Some meat producers and retailers, however, have already implemented the testing. Beef Products Inc. of Dakota Dunes, S.D., started testing for the "big six" non-0157 E. coli strains in mid-July. Since then, the company has held back 63,000 pounds of beef, about two-tenths of one percent of its product. The firm sells about 400 million pounds of beef annually, said spokesman Gene Grabowski.
"BPI decided to take it a step further," Grabowski said.
Retail giant Costco also requires its suppliers to test for the non-O157 E. coli strains. Craig Wilson, the company's assistant of food safety, praised the USDA's new rules.
"These wheels grind slowly. This is a pretty big step," Wilson said.
It's not clear what kind of food caused the 2008 restaurant outbreak of E. coli O111 that sickened Shiloh Johnson and 340 other people in Oklahoma. Shiloh ate a range of foods including chicken, boiled egg, bread and olives, her mother said. State health officials were never able to identify exactly how the E. coli bacteria entered the facility or the food at the Country Cottage restaurant in Locust Grove, Okla.
"There was speculation that it came through the well water," said Belinda Johnson. She and Shiloh's brother, Gabe, who was 7, became only mildly ill.
Johnson, a divorced mom who works as an office manager, said testing for E. coli O111 in meat would be a first step toward detecting and preventing the organism in one type of food. That may prevent other children from developing E. coli infections like the one that sickened Shiloh, leading her to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, a severe complication that can cause kidney failure and death.
Today, Shiloh is a normal eighth-grader who loves to read and sing and play with her cats and dogs, her mother says. Still, lingering damage means she is diagnosed with chronic kidney disease and borderline high blood pressure.
At the time, Belinda Johnson didn't known much about E. coli infections. "I assumed it was being tested for," she said.
But now, her family is glad to have turned Shiloh's ordeal into part of the push for change.
"It's a really good feeling to know we had a part of that," she said.