By Julie Schmit, USA TODAY
Braylee Beaver, 20 months old,
is back to her playful self after a 12-day hospital stay in which she
received dialysis treatment and was stuck with so many needles she thought
she was being punished, says her father.
Beaver was allegedly
sickened by an E. coli bacteria but not E. coli O157:H7, the type that most
consumers are aware of. That bacteria drove the
recall of almost 30 million pounds of meat last year and was blamed for an
outbreak involving fresh spinach in 2006 in which five died.
Instead, the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention says Beaver and 313 others who ate food
from an Oklahoma restaurant in August were sickened by E. coli O111, a rare
type of E. coli that can also be deadly and is becoming increasingly
familiar to public health officials.
From 1990 to 2007, O111
was linked to 10 reported illness outbreaks in the U.S., the
CDC says. Four of the 10 were linked to food. Before the Oklahoma
outbreak, in which one person died, the biggest O111 outbreak happened in New York in 2004.
Unpasteurized apple cider was blamed for 212 illnesses.
E. coli O111 is a Shiga
toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC. It is one of a handful of non-O157 STECs that have caused 22 reported illness outbreaks in
from 1990 to 2007, the CDC says. Food caused 10 of the outbreaks.
Illnesses caused by the
non-O157 STECs tend to be milder than those
caused by O157, the CDC says. But some can cause equally severe disease and
kidney failure, a danger of O157. In Oklahoma,
17 needed dialysis, state officials say.
The number of reported
non-O157 outbreaks is small. But others may have gone unreported because
doctors may not have looked for non-O157 E. coli in sick patients.
"There's a significant possibility that illnesses and outbreaks have
been missed," says Elisabeth Hagen of the Office of Public Health for
the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The CDC estimates that
more than 25,000 non-O157 STEC infections occur each year in the U.S. —
about a third the number of O157:H7 infections.
Research has also shown
that other E. coli types may be more prevalent than thought, Richard
Raymond, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, told officials meeting
on the subject last October. He cited a recent study in Nebraska in which nearly 50% of E. coli
infections there were non-O157:H7s. Other countries have seen the same, Hagen says.
Cattle are a primary
source of E. coli. While there are many types of E. coli, only O157:H7 is
routinely tested for by the meat industry and the USDA. It was identified
in the 1980s and was declared an adulterant in ground beef in 1994.
infection reports, the USDA plans to begin some testing of ground beef for
six other E. coli types, including O111, that are causing most of the
non-O157 infections, Hagen
says. Testing may begin within months, she adds.
It's not clear whether
more non-O157 STEC infections are occurring or whether they're being
identified more often, Hagen
says. The USDA wants to determine how prevalent they are and find ways to
reduce any risks to consumers. None of the 22 non-O157 outbreaks has been
linked to meat. That has occurred in other countries.
"We think it's a
significant enough public health concern to see if it's a problem," Hagen says.
Food associations say
they support study of other E. coli. But they say it's too soon to say
whether they should be called adulterants, which would cause recalls in the
future. Proper cooking destroys E. coli.
"We need a much
better understanding of what the landscape looks like," says Robert
Brackett of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. He also says that
industry efforts to rid meat of E. coli O157:H7 — including washing cattle
carcasses — work against other E. coli.
outbreak, which state officials say ended last month, has been linked only
to Country Cottage, an independent buffet-style restaurant in Locust Grove, Okla.,
but not to a cause. The restaurant has closed.
The CDC identified E.
coli O111 as the culprit on Aug. 29, 10 days after Braylee
had the biggest meal of her life, including chicken fried steak and
When Braylee first got diarrhea, her parents thought it was
a normal bug. Then her stools turned bloody and she was hospitalized, says
her father, Jake Beaver. Her parents hope she'll avoid lifelong kidney
problems, which can arise.
"I didn't know E.
coli could do this," Beaver says. "I just thought people got a
Dana and Rick Boner of Monroe, Iowa,
also thought their daughter, Kayla, had a regular bug last year when she
fell ill on her 14th birthday. Kayla died 11 days later because of an E.
coli O111 infection — the cause of which was never determined — her mother
"I didn't even
know there were any other strains but O157," says Boner, an insurance
She speculates that other
non-O157 illnesses have gone undetected or incorrectly reported for years,
given the lack of awareness about it.
"I want people to
know there are other strains," she says. "How could my child be
the only person who got this?"