WASHINGTON – As European health officials worked feverishly to uncover the source of, as well as definitively identify the strain behind, its current deadlyE. colioutbreak, media outlets throughout the world have been scrambling to connect the dots.

On June 5, German health authorities said they hoped for a breakthrough in their battle against the outbreak that has left 22 dead and many ill after reportedly identifying bean sprouts as a possible cause. Based on results from initial tests, bean sprouts are a likely source of the worstE. colioutbreak in modern history, said Gert Lindemann, the agriculture minister for the north German state of Lower Saxony.

Meanwhile, suspected US cases involving the same deadlyE. colibacteria outbreak totaled four as of June 5, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson. US Officials said all four US patients recently visited Hamburg, Germany.

Some are asking if an outbreak of the rare, suspected — but not confirmed —E. coli0104 strain possibly behind the EU outbreak could happen in the US and if products are currently being tested for this strain by the US meat and poultry industry.

It is important to remember the European outbreak does not appear to involve meat products, said Janet Riley, the American Meat Institute’s senior vice president of public affairs and member services. Raw tomatoes, fresh cucumbers and lettuce were previously suspected, according to EU sources, but now bean sprouts appear to be the culprit.

When it comes to battling pathogens, the US meat industry is a seasoned veteran. “We have extensive experience in battling pathogens likeE. coliO157:H7 on meat products and our industry has been held up as a model for others because of our proactive efforts that have helped us achieve federal public health goals,” said James Hodges, AMI executive vice president. “The issue of non O157 STECS is an issue that needs to be addressed globally across all foods. We are concerned that there may be a rush to regulate, however, before all the evidence is in. That is why we have conveyed to federal agencies that existing knowledge and technical gaps must be filled, and when it comes to this issue, those gaps are wide and numerous.”

Europe’s outbreak points to a need for better information and attribution data. “Consider that [EU] officials think it’s the 0104 strain, for example, but they aren’t sure,” Riley said of the EU outbreak. “In the US, 0104 is not one of the ‘top six’ non-O157 STECS according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], so presumably it would not be part of any regulatory proposals that may be in development.”

Europe does not use the antimicrobial treatments used in the US. “They are only permitted to use hot water and steam,” Riley said. “As a result, we are not permitted to use anti-microbial treatments on products for export to the EU. Unfortunately, these treatments are the very things that have helped us reduceE. coliO157:H7 to extremely low levels in the US.

“Finally, a very important point: the prevention strategies the US [meat and poultry industry] has in place forE. coli O157:H7 work equally well for non-O157 STECS. We have had well-documented success in reducing O157:H7 on raw beef products and believe our control strategies are working well against all strains,” she concluded.