The bacterium that has killed more than a dozen Europeans, sickened nearly 2,000 more and raised international alarms would be legal if it were found on meat or poultry in the United States.
If the bacterium were to contaminate fruits or vegetables grown here, there would be no way to prevent an outbreak, because farmers and processors are not required to test for the pathogen before the food heads to supermarkets.
“If somehow this strain got into that same environment and spread rapidly, it would represent a major disaster in terms of the U.S. food industry and risk to humans,” said J. Glenn Morris, a former official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who directs the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “The regulatory framework is a couple of steps behind.”
The strain that has emerged in Europe is a particularly virulent version of E. coli 0104 and, in the outbreak that began in early May, has been linked to more than 1,600 illnesses and 18 deaths. About 500 people — an unusually large percentage of those who have been sickened — have developed a life-threatening kidney complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, for which there is no treatment.
European health officials are unsure what caused the outbreak, making it difficult to stop its spread. Initial suspicions centered on cucumbers grown in Spain, but laboratory tests showed that the cucumbers were contaminated with a version of E. coli that did not match the strain in the outbreak.
Officials at the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration acknowledge that new strains of the bacterium are a serious concern, but regulators in the United States have focused largely on a related but more notorious version, E.coli 0157.
USDA officials said they have been studying the extent of new and emerging strains of E. coli in meat, the practicality of testing for them and whether to ban them. At the FDA, which has never required testing produce for the bacteria, officials are working on new standards that might include such testing.
“In the wake of this current outbreak, we have to examine how we can best protect consumers from this and other emerging pathogens,” a USDA spokesman said.
Donald Kraemer, deputy director for food safety at the FDA, said the agency is monitoring produce arriving from Spain and the other countries where the illnesses have spread.
It is unlikely that the outbreak would reach the United States, said Phillip I. Tarr, a prominent E. coli expert at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, because the bacterium is not in the food supply here. Although it can be spread from person to person, it is more often caused by contaminated food.
At least two cases have been reported in the United States, and federal and state health authorities are watching for any additional cases, a federal health official said Thursday.
Both victims were hospitalized in May with the severe syndrome the microbe causes after returning from Hamburg, where they presumably became infected, the official said. Both remain seriously ill. Officials are awaiting the results of lab tests to confirm the connection.
So far, there are no signs that the microbe has spread to anyone else, the official said.
There are about 700 varieties of E. coli, most of them harmless to humans. But a small number produce a toxin known as Shiga that can cause serious illness or death in people.
The bacteria live in the intestines of cows, pigs and other ruminants. Although it is not clear how E. coli transfers from cattle to produce, scientists think it spreads through contact with manure or tainted irrigation water.
In the United States, food safety efforts have been focused almost entirely on E.coli 0157:H7, the strain responsible for a series of high-profile outbreaks, starting with tainted hamburgers sold by Jack in the Box that killed four children and sickened hundreds in 1993.
A year later, the Agriculture Department made it illegal to sell beef contaminated with the 0157 bacterium. By 1996, slaughterhouses and meat processors were required to test for it and take steps to reduce its prevalence, such as washing carcasses in hot water and lactic acid.
Federal regulators report that those efforts are paying off; testing shows that E. coli 0157:H7 contamination in meat has been declining.
But at the same time, other strains — just as dangerous to humans as 0157 — have been emerging in food, experts say. Last year, Cargill Meat Solutions recalled 8,500 pounds of hamburger after it was linked to an outbreak of illness from E. coli 026, the first time that strain was blamed in an outbreak.
William Marler, a food safety advocate and lawyer who has represented many victims of food-borne illness, petitioned the USDA in 2009 to broaden the ban on E.coli 0157 to include all related strains that cause illness in humans.
“What’s going on in Europe is devastating,” Marler said. “Our government needs to step in and say, ‘Public health takes precedent on this issue and we’re going to just jump on it.’ ”
After holding public meetings on the issue last year, USDA sent a proposal to the Office of Management and Budget, which has been pending since January. The proposal has not been made public, but sources familiar with it said it would expand the E.coli ban for raw beef products to include six other strains of the bacterium known to public health officials as “the Big Six.” The outbreak strain in Europe, E. coli 0104, is not among the Big Six.
Elisabeth Hagen, the director of food safety at USDA, said last year that “our policies need to evolve to address a broader range of these pathogens, beyond E.coli 0157:H7.”
The meat industry has opposed expanding the ban, arguing that the steps it takes to prevent E. coli 0157 contamination work equally well for other strains.
The FDA, meanwhile, is crafting new produce rules that will mandate procedures that growers must follow to prevent contamination, said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for food safety. The rules, expected to be issued by 2012, will deal with the use of manure, control of animals, worker hygiene and water quality, among other issues. Taylor would not say whether growers and processors will be required to test for bacteria.
Growers have been too narrowly focused on E. coli 0157, said Will Daniels, senior vice president for food safety at Earthbound Farm, the nation’s largest producer of organic salad greens. The company has voluntarily tested for all toxic E. coli strains for the past four years.“Not a lot of attention is being paid to better understand those particular organisms and prevent them,” he said.
Staff writer Rob Stein contributed to this report.