Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/12/2011 3:15:40 PM ET 2011-09-12T19:15:40

Federal agriculture officials are expanding long-delayed rules that will ban six new strains of potentially lethal E. coli bacteria from the nation’s beef supply, msnbc.com has learned.

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Under the new regulations, a group of E. coli bacteria collectively dubbed the “the big six” capable of causing infection and death will be classified as adulterants on par with the better-known E. coli 0157:H7, the bug frequently linked to serious foodborne illness from tainted ground beef.

Starting next spring, federal food safety inspectors will test for those strains of E. coli and it will be illegal to sell beef contaminated with the pathogens, consumer advocates and meat industry sources told msnbc.com.

US Department of Agriculture officials were expected to confirm the changes at a press conference scheduled Tuesday.

The move was hailed as a long-sought victory by food safety advocates, who said they wondered why it took so long to require testing for bacteria that last year collectively caused more infections in the U.S. than E. coli 0157.

“I think what consumers can expect is less contaminated product making it into commerce,” said Nancy Donley, president of the agency STOP Foodborne Illness. "It's fantastic news."

The new move was sharply criticized by meat industry officials, who had opposed the change, saying that current measures to detect and eradicate E. coli 0157 were adequate to prevent infection from the other pathogens.

"[The news] that it will soon be ‘illegal’ to have six strains of naturally occurring non-O157 E. coli in ground beef is premised upon the notion that the government can make products safe by banning a pathogen. That view is not supported by science," American Meat Institute Executive Vice President James H. Hodges said in a statement.

The rules cover six strains of E. coli bacteria that have the ability to produce the same deadly toxins that can lead to bloody diarrheal illness, kidney failure and death as E. coli 0157. Known as Shiga toxin-producing Esherichia coli, or STECs, the group includes the strains 026, 0111, 0103, 0121, 045 and 0145.

In 2010, for the first time, those rarer strains of E. coli were responsible for more infections in the U.S. than E. coli 0157, according to a June study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The non-STECs caused 451 confirmed infections last year, including 69 people who were hospitalized and one death. E. coli 0157 caused 442 infections, 184 hospitalizations and two deaths.

However, CDC officials say many infections are never detected. The agency estimates that overall, as many as 265,000 STEC infections occur each year in the United States, with the non-0157 strains causing up to 113,000 illnesses and 300 hospitalizations annually.

E. coli 0157 was first labeled an adulterant in 1994, after a deadly outbreak in Jack in the Box restaurant hamburger patties that sickened more than 700 people in four states and led to 171 hospitalizations and four deaths. The move made it illegal to sell raw meat contaminated with the bacteria.

At the time, meat industry officials called the change an overreaction and sued the federal government over the designation. Since then, CDC officials say vigilant testing and industry recalls have helped reduce the rate of E. coli 0157 to less than 1 case per 100,000 people, a decline from 2 cases per 100,000 people in 1997.

Agriculture, industry and consumer groups have fiercely debated the new rules since at least 2007, during a meeting to assess the impact of the non-0157 E. coli strains.

Last year, Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety lawyer, petitioned FSIS to declare the “big six” STECs as adulterants. In his food safety blog, Marler threatened to sue the agency if no action was taken by Sept. 1, saying the long non-response amounted to a denial.

But Marler credited USDA officials with pushing through the new rule despite pressure from the meat industry in the US — and from other nations, such as Australia and Argentina, which will have to implement new regulations as a result of the change.

"I am more than pleased," Marler said. "It's a big recognition that there are other pathogens out there that cause human disease."

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