Outbreaks Spur Rapid STEC Tests

First implicated in a 1993 U.S. outbreak caused by undercooked ground beef, the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) known as O157:H7 has become a familiar term associated with foodborne illness.

High-profile outbreaks—last year’s deadly crisis in Germany, attributed to O104 in sprouts, and another in Japan linked to O111 in raw beef—have significantly raised public awareness of lesser-known pathogenic types of E. coli called non-O157 STEC.

The CDC estimates that out of 265,000 STEC infections in the U.S. annually, 64% are caused by non-O157 STEC. Although infections that progress to severe illness are typically caused by E. coli O157:H7, life-threatening conditions such as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) have been associated with non-O157 STEC.

FoodNet, a CDC surveillance system for tracking illness, began collecting data on non-O157 infections in 2000. Ten years later, the annual number of cases had risen from 57 to 451, due in part to more frequent testing, increased capability, and better reporting.

Until recently, foods implicated in U.S. outbreaks of non-O157 STEC—milk, salad, punch, apple cider, lettuce, berries, cheese, margarine—did not include beef. But in 2010, one major food business ended up recalling 8,500 pounds of ground beef after three people became ill with E. coli O26 infections.

New Regulations

The CDC estimates that six serogroups are responsible for 70% to 83% of non-O157 STEC illnesses. In September, the USDA’s FSIS determined that pathogenic strains of those serogroups—O26, O111, O121, O45, O103, and O145—would be considered adulterants in beef.

This means that, starting this year, beef companies need to ensure trim and non-intact beef are free of not only O157:H7 but also the “top six” non-O157 STEC. Any product found to contain these adulterants must either be processed further before selling into the market or destroyed.

Food companies are looking for technological advances and reliable new assays that will make food safety testing faster, more accurate, and more convenient. Recognizing the rising concern, DuPont Qualicon collaborated with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in 2010 to develop a new test.

The FSIS based its decision on criteria similar to the standards used in 2002 to determine O157:H7 as an adulterant: These serogroups can be carried in cattle and find their way into the beef supply, they can survive ordinary cooking, and small doses (1-10 cfu) can cause human illness.

One difference between these serogroups and O157:H7, however, is that while all O157 STEC are considered pathogenic, non-O157 STEC must test positive for certain virulence factors in order to be considered pathogenic. The FSIS determined that the critical virulence factors in non-O157 STEC for food testing purposes are the shiga toxins (stx1 and stx2) and the binding factor (eae or intimin).

Need for New Tests

To meet the challenges of these new regulations, food companies are looking for technological advances and reliable new assays that will make food safety testing faster, more accurate, and more convenient.

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