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E. coli deaths in Europe spotlight gaps in U.S. food-safety system

A lab technician holds petri dish containing dangerous E. coli bacteria from a patient at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf on June 2, 2011 in Hamburg, Germany. Getty Images

(CBS/AP) Could it happen here? That's what food safety experts in the U.S. are asking in the wake of the deadly Escherichia coli outbreak that's swept Europe in recent days.

Experts say there are gaps in the U.S. food safety system, and that it's impossible to test for every illness-causing strain of E. coli.

Today, the food industry and health authorities focus mostly on a single strain of E. coli bacteria that until now was considered the most dangerous. But strains known collectively as "the other E. colis" were sickening people well before the extra-deadly European bug burst on the scene.

"It's a wake-up call around the world," said the Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has long been concerned about the lesser-known strains.

Authorities don't know the source of the European infection, but suspects there include cucumbers, tomatoes and leafy lettuce.

Should Americans stop eating those vegetables? Officials say there's no reason for that, but acknowledge that they are monitoring the situation carefully. As a precaution, the FDA has stepped up testing of those foods imported from affected countries, although little is imported.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday there's no immediate threat from the European E. coli outbreak. "We have to constantly look for ways to improve food safety, and that requires us to make sure that we're testing for the right things," he said.

"There are no regulations in place today that would prevent this kind of outbreak from occurring" in the U.S., said food-safety expert Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The produce industry says it's not waiting on the FDA. Some growers in California and other areas have voluntarily adopted such standards as not harvesting leafy greens within 5 feet of feces or other animal activity in a field, said David Gombas of United Fresh Produce. What prevents the long-targeted E. coli strain should prevent these newly worrisome varieties, too, he said.

E. coli is incredibly common. Hundreds of strains, most of them harmless, live in the intestines of humans, cows and numerous other animals. But some produce toxins that can cause diarrhea, sometimes severe enough to trigger kidney failure, even death.

The most dangerous form in the U.S. has been the E. coli O157:H7 strain, notorious since a 1993 outbreak at a fast-food chain led to its classification as an adulterant in meat, requiring testing and recalls. A 2006 outbreak in spinach highlighted the threat to fresh produce, too. The CDC estimates that strain alone causes about 63,000 foodborne illnesses a year.

In Europe's unusually large outbreak, an emerging super-strain named O104:H4 has sickened at least 1,600 people and killed 18.

Dr. David Acheson cast doubt on the notion that widespread testing of food would offer ironclad protection against E. coli, saying, "You never know what's around the corner that's just waiting to bite you."