One child is dead and 13 others sickened across six states in an ongoing outbreak of E. coli O145. Another child—a first-grader in Massachusetts—also recently died, but that was from a different strain, E. coli O157. After the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak in 1993, E. coli O157 was declared an adulterant, meaning it became illegal to sell meat testing positive for the deadly pathogen, but it remained perfectly legal to sell meat contaminated with the other "Big Six" toxin-producing E. coli strains: O26, O111, O103, O121, O45 and O145, which collectively are sickening twice as many Americans as O157. For years, food safety and consumer organizations have fought to ban the sale of meat soiled with these other deadly strains over meat industry objections.
In the 1990s, the American Meat Institute opposed the original ban on the sale of raw meat contaminated with E. coli O157 despite the devastating effect this pathogen could have on vulnerable populations, especially children. Here's how one mother described what E. coli O157:H7 did to her three-year-old daughter Brianna:
"The pain during the first 80 hours was horrific, with intense abdominal cramping every10 to 12 minutes. Her intestines swelled to three times their normal size and she was placed on a ventilator. Emergency surgery became essential and her colon was removed. After further surgery, doctors decided to leave the incision open, from sternum to pubis, to allow Brianna's swollen organs room to expand and prevent them from ripping her skin. Her heart was so swollen it was like a sponge and bled from every pore. Her liver and pancreas shut down and she was gripped by thousands of convulsions, which caused blood clots in her eyes. We were told she was brain dead."
The ban on E. coli O157 passed in 1994 despite industry opposition, and the number of Americans dying from that strain is now half of what it used to be. Unfortunately this lesson was lost on the American Meat Institute, which continued to fight tooth and nail against similar regulations targeting the other Big Six strains. This week they lost. Meat known to positive for any of these potentially deadly pathogens can no longer be legally sold as of June 4, 2012. Too late for Maelan Elizabeth Graffagnini, though, the 21-month old victim of E. coli O145 whose funeral was held the same day.
The immediate source of the current outbreak has yet to be identified, but the original source is always the same: feces. How contaminated is the American meat supply with fecal matter? See my video Fecal Bacteria Survey. And what about the hundreds of thousands of Americans that die from non-intestinal E. coli infections? Please check out Chicken Out of UTIs.
-Michael Greger, M.D.