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Health,Two U.S. E. coli cases tied to European outbreak

The bacterium that has killed more than a dozen Europeans,sickened nearly 2,000 more and raised international alarms would be legal if it were found on meat or poultry in the United States.
If the bacterium were to contaminate fruits or vegetables grown here, there would be no way to prevent an outbreak, because farmers and processors are not required to test for the pathogen before the food heads to supermarkets.
If somehow this strain got into that same environment and spread rapidly, it would represent a major disaster in terms of the U.S. food industry and risk to humans,” said J.Glenn Morris,a former official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who directs the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “The regulatory framework is a couple of steps behind.”
The strain that has emerged in Europe is a particularly virulent version of E. coli 0104 and, in the outbreak that began in early May, has been linked to more than 1,600 illnesses and 18 deaths. About 500 people — an unusually large percentage of those who have been sickened — have developed a life-threatening kidney complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, for which there is no treatment.

European health officials are unsure what caused the outbreak, making it difficult to stop its spread. Initial suspicions centered on cucumbers grown in Spain, but laboratory tests showed that the cucumbers were contaminated with a version of E. coli that did not match the strain in the outbreak.

Officials at the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration acknowledge that new strains of the bacterium are a serious concern, but regulators in the United States have focused largely on a related but more notorious version, E.coli 0157.

USDA officials said they have been studying the extent of new and emerging strains of E. coli in meat, the practicality of testing for them and whether to ban them. At the FDA, which has never required testing produce for the bacteria, officials are working on new standards that might include such testing.

“In the wake of this current outbreak, we have to examine how we can best protect consumers from this and other emerging pathogens,” a USDA spokesman said.

Donald Kraemer, deputy director for food safety at the FDA, said the agency is monitoring produce arriving from Spain and the other countries where the illnesses have spread.

It is unlikely that the outbreak would reach the United States, said Phillip I. Tarr, a prominent E. coli expert at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, because the bacterium is not in the food supply here. Although it can be spread from person to person, it is more often caused by contaminated food.

At least two cases have been reported in the United States, and federal and state health authorities are watching for any additional cases, a federal health official said Thursday.

Both victims were hospitalized in May with the severe syndrome the microbe causes after returning from Hamburg, where they presumably became infected, the official said. Both remain seriously ill. Officials are awaiting the results of lab tests to confirm the connection.

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