The most dangerous form in the U.S. has been the E. coli O157:H7 strain, notorious since a 1993 outbreak at a fast-food chain led to its classification as an adulterant in meat, requiring testing and recalls. A 2006 outbreak in spinach highlighted the threat to fresh produce, too. The CDC estimates that strain alone causes about 63,000 foodborne illnesses a year.
In Europe’s unusually large outbreak, an emerging super-strain named O104:H4 has sickened at least 1,600 people and killed 18. Most surprising is that nearly 500 of those victims have that kidney damage, more than typical with other strains.
It’s not clear why this particular strain is so virulent. But genetic testing suggests a toxin-spewing form of the bug combined with another strain that attaches to a patient’s gut in a more aggressive way _ the germs stacking in a brick-like pattern rather than individually, said Acheson. He has long studied E. coli and warned years ago that lesser known strains were “just accidents waiting to happen.”
In fact, CDC’s Tauxe says that other toxin-forming E. colis altogether cause more illnesses _ about 112,000 U.S. cases a year _ than the most targeted type. But the other E. colis got less attention because they tended to cause smaller outbreaks, like the one in romaine lettuce blamed for two dozen illnesses in five states last year.
That’s why Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food poisoning cases, petitioned USDA to mandate beef testing for the other E. colis, knowing that other foods tend to follow the meat industry.
“If E. coli O157 is an adulterant in hamburger, then these other bugs should be, period,” he said.
Tauxe cautions there’s a lot to learn about these other E. colis. Later this year, the CDC will begin a study to identify risk factors, what foods and which people seem particularly vulnerable.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.
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