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Communications > News Line > Posts > The Growing Rogues Gallery of Food-Borne Pathogens — and What You Can Do about It

E.coli-colony.jpgThe rogues gallery of foodborne pathogens has grown larger.

What was once thought to be only one potentially deadly strain of E.coli has been joined by six others — the so-called “Big Six” as some are calling them.

One food safety expert says the addition of these new pathogens underscores why ordinary Americans should take proactive steps to ensure that they and their loved ones are adequately protected against food-borne illness.

Similarities to E.coli O157:H7

Dr. JeanWeese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of food science, says these so-called “Big Six” bear much in common with the better known E.coli O157:H7 strain (pictured above, right).   All are capable of producing bloody diarrheal illness that can lead to kidney failure and, in some cases, death.

The six new strains include E.coli O26, O45, O111, O121, O130 and O145. 

“State and federal health officials and researchers are now calling for these to be tested because they are the most likely causes of many food-borne outbreaks that until recently have been attributed to the better known E.coli O157:H7,” Weese says.

A Third of U.S. Outbreaks Connected with Big Six

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as much as a third of the infections in the United States are caused by non-O157:H7 E.coli strains.

Researchers know these strains as Shiga toxin-producing E.coli (STEC), because they have acquired genetic traits from one or both Shiga toxins — Stx1 and Stx2.  The most potently toxic of the two, Stx2, is the most commonly associated with acute illness, Weese says.

Much like O157:H7, these strains have turned up in samples of cattle carcasses, retail beef and raw milk, Weese says.

Recent E.coli O121 Outbreak

One STEC strain, E.coli O121, was linked to an outbreak that sickened 32 people in 18 states between December 30, 2012 and April 2, 2013.  The vast majority of these ill people were age 21 or younger.  Investigators think a likely cause was consuming Farm Rich brand frozen food products.

The O121 strain was identified in two different Farm Rich brand frozen products collected from the homes of two ill persons.

More than a third of the victims were hospitalized.  Two of them developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure, though no deaths have been reported.

Causes of the Outbreak

e.coli-dividing.jpgWhat caused the outbreak?  Because the products were likely precooked, Weese has speculated that contamination may have stemmed from the breakdown in the company’s HACCP protocol. HAACP, which stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, is a series of procedures designed to safeguard against safety lapses along the food processing chain.

(Above, right: Picture of E.coli bacteria dividing.)

Another contributing factor may stem from some users not following the reheating directions carried on the label.

First Rule of Thumb

“One of the first rules of thumb in food safety is either to cook or, in this case, to reheat a product according to instructions specified on the packaging,” Weese says. “Unfortunately, many people have fallen into the habit of heating the product for a shorter period than the directions recommend or, even worse, allowing it to thaw on the counter.”

While some outbreaks of STECs have been linked to fruits and vegetables, these are almost invariably traced to warm-blooded animals, including birds, which have passed through or over farms or gardens, says Kristin Woods, an Alabama Extension food safety agent in southwest Alabama.

As an added safeguard, she advises washing produce thoroughly before eating it.

Likewise, parents should always carry along hand sanitizers whenever they take their children to petting zoos.

Also, despite the talk of its alleged nutritional benefits, raw milk has been known to harbor E.coli bacteria and should be avoided for that reason alone, Woods says.



Graham Price

5/5/2013 12:29 PM
“One of the first rules of thumb in food safety is either to cook or, in this case, to reheat a product according to instructions specified on the packaging,” - If only we would take heed of such a simple instruction!