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Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) in meat and meat products

Background: Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) was first identified as a human pathogen in 1982 when strains of a previously uncommon serotype, O157:H7, were implicated in two outbreaks of haemorrhagic colitis in the United States. Since then, outbreaks of EHEC O157:H7 infection have occurred and continue to occur throughout many regions of the world, as have outbreaks of infections from non-O157 serotypes of E. coli, including O26:H11, O111:H8, O103:H2, O113:H21, and O104:H21.

Human response from EHEC ingestion ranges from asymptomatic infection to death, with the incubation period ranging from one to eight days. Illness typically begins with abdominal cramps and non-bloody diarrhoea that can progress to bloody diarrhoea within two to three days. Infection with EHEC may lead to further complications, most notably haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the most common cause of acute renal failure in young children.

EHEC have been isolated from various domestic animals and wildlife, including sheep, swine, goats, and deer. Cattle, however, are considered the main reservoir of EHEC. Accordingly, data based on outbreaks and sporadic infections indicate consumption of beef, including ground beef and processed beef products, is one of the most important sources of foodborne EHEC infection.

Taking into consideration the ongoing public health problem of EHEC in their Member Countries, the impact of this pathogen on meat trade and a suggestion from the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene to undertake a risk assessment on this issue, FAO and WHO, together with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), convened an inception meeting on enterohaemorrhagic E. coli in raw meat and meat products from 4–7 September 2006 in Dublin, Ireland. This meeting was convened to provide guidance to FAO and WHO on the appropriate steps in the development of this activity before embarking on any risk assessment work. The report of this meeting is now available.