(July 1, 2011) - The strain of E. coli responsible for the recent German foodborne outbreak shows some characteristics that distinguish it from the strains that have caused illness in the US. First, except for the recent cases that are tied to tourists who have recently returned from that area in Germany, the German strain O104:H4, has only been traced to one previous foodborne illnesses in the US—“a  outbreak of bloody diarrhea associated with consumption of raw milk in Montana.” The most common outbreak strain found in the US is E. coli O157:H7, which is a Shiga-toxin producing strain and is considered an adulterant when found in meat samples.
E. coli O104:H4 is not among the other six Shiga-toxin producing strains that have been identified as responsible for previous E. coli-based outbreaks. At present none of these six strains nor E. coli O104:H4 is considered an adulterant and there are no US regulations requiring packers to test for them.
(June 24, 2011) - In response to our previous columns—http://agpolicy.org/articles11.html—on the devastating E. coli 0104:H4 outbreak in Germany, a reporter called and asked the obvious question: “Can this happen in the US?” While we are neither pathologists nor epidemiologists, everything that we have read indicates that the answer is “Yes.” We have nothing in place to prevent this type of outbreak.
That said, there is still a lot to be learned about the particular configuration of this version of E. coli. Specifically, researchers are searching for information that will allow us to understand why this particular version of the disease has been so deadly and has left so many others with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a kidney disease that will reshape the rest of their lives. As of Friday, June 17, 2011 the death toll from this outbreak had reached 39. In addition, 839 people out of at least 3,517 reported illnesses had come down with HUS.
(June 17, 2011) - In following the story of the E. coli outbreak in Germany, we were intrigued when they declared that they had determined that the point of origin was raw bean sprouts produced on an organic farm despite the fact that tests on bean sprout samples were negative for E. coli 0104:H4, the bacteria responsible for 30 deaths in Germany and 1 in Sweden. So far the number of those who have come down with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), permanent damage of the kidneys, is nearing 800 out of 3,000 recorded illnesses.
It turns out that they used a variety of evolving investigative and statistical techniques as they sought to identify the source material. In this column, we will look at the processes they used to investigate the source of the material responsible for the outbreak.
Much of the material in this column is based on documents that can be found on the website of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), http://www.rki.de/EN/Home/homepage__node.html. The institute is part of the German Federal Ministry of Health. As in the US, responsibility for food-borne illness outbreaks is fragmented among several agencies.