Press Release

Gillibrand Introduces New Legislation To Regulate 6 Deadly, Unchecked E. Coli Strains

May 27, 2010

Washington, DC – As the Senate Agriculture Committee holds a confirmation hearing for the new head of Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today is introducing new legislation to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate the six currently unregulated strains of E. coli proven to cause food-borne illnesses. In addition to the most common form of E. coli that is already regulated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified six rarer strains, known as non-0157 STECs. The CDC estimates that non-0157 STECs cause 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year.

“How many people have to get sick before we take action? In America, in 2010, it is unconscionable that food is still going straight to our kitchens, school cafeterias and restaurants without being properly tested to ensure its safety,” Senator Gillibrand said. “It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives. The laws that are meant to keep us safe from hazardous foods are in critical need of updating. We need to pass this legislation to keep our families safe.”

E. coli 0157:H7 is by far the most common strain in American beef. But non-0157 STECs are increasingly found in beef imported from other countries, but is never checked for since current law only requires imported ground beef to be checked for E. coli 0157:H7.

Senator Gillibrand’s new legislation adds the six confirmed strains to the list of adulterants, requires meat companies to test for and discard any batches containing any toxic strains of E. coli, and gives the USDA the authority to find and regulate more toxic strains in the future. 

Specifically, Senator Gillibrand’s legislation:

  • Amends the Federal Meat Inspection Act to revise the definition of the term ‘‘adulterated’’ to include contamination with E. coli.
  • Defines E. coli as “enterohemorrhagic (EHEC) Shiga toxin-producing serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli).” 
  • Includes the following E. coli strains: 0157: H7, 026, 045, 0103, 011, 0121, 0145
  • EHEC was chosen because it is, by definition, pathogenic, meaning disease causing.  This strikes a compromise between being overly-inclusive (not all STEC are pathogenic) and under-inclusive (not closing the door on as yet unidentified strains of pathogenic E. coli)
  • By expanding the definition of adulterants to other strains, it will require USDA to begin spot testing procedures, force companies (through legal pressure) to test and eliminate the pathogen, and require FSIS to recommend best testing practices to companies.

Last fall, Senator Gillibrand introduced the E. Coli Eradication Act, the first legislation ever to require slaughterhouses and meat grinding facilities to implement more stringent ground beef testing. Click here for more information on the E. Coli Eradication Act.

Last month, Senator Gillibrand wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the USDA to begin testing for and regulating the additional E. coli strains. Senator Gillibrand’s full letter is below:

April 22, 2010

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

I am writing to you today to urge you to respond formally to two petitions to the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Services: 1) Petition for an Interpretive Rule Declaring all enterohemorrhagic Shiga Toxin-producing Serotypes of Escherichia coli (E. coli), including Non-O157 Serotypes, to be Adulterants Within the Meaning of 21 U.S.C. § 601(m)(1)  – Petition #09-03; and, 2) S.T.O.P.-Safe Tables Our Priority’s Call to Action and Public Petition.

These petitions detail the scientific and legal bases for listing non-0157 STECs as adulterants. Such listings will avoid the same kind of large-scale disaster that precipitated the 1994 declaration of E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant.  S.T.O.P.’s petition also calls for the expansion of the definition of adulterant to include E. coli O157:H7 and these six other STEC when they are in any type of beef, not just ground beef or beef intended for ground beef. With these actions, USDA will take a significant leap forward in ensuring the safety of American consumers.

In light of current scientific and medical research, the health hazards posed by STEC are undeniable.  The CDC recognized these hazards in 2000 when the agency made all STEC nationally notifiable.  Since reporting was implemented in 2001, instances of non-O157 STEC have steadily increased year by year.  In 2005 alone, 501 cases of non-O157 STEC were reported through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System.  This has become an issue that is too important and too urgent to ignore any longer.  Indeed, in a presentation given on September 14, 2009, L. Hannah Gould, MS, PhD from the CDC stated that non-O157 STEC causes an estimated 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths annually.

As the numbers of reported illnesses from non-O157 STEC steadily increase, immediate action on this issue is critical. Please respond formally to these petitions, and send me a copy of this response.

Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senator