Characteristics of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli from meat and milk products of different origins and association with food producing animals as main contamination sources
Shiga toxin-producing strains of Escherichia coli (STEC) cause diarrhoea and haemorrhagic colitis in humans. Most human infections are attributed to consumption of STEC contaminated foodstuff. Food producing animals constitute important reservoirs of STEC and serve as source of food contamination. In this study, we have analyzed 593 foodborne STEC strains for their serotypes and for nine virulence genes (stx1, stx1c, stx1d, stx2, stx2b, stx2e, stx2g, E-hly and eae). The 593 STEC strains grouped into 215 serotypes, and 123 serotypes (57.2%) were represented each by only one STEC isolate. Fifteen serotypes (7.0%) were attributed to 198 (33.3%) of the 593 STEC strains. The foodborne STEC were grouped into different categories in relation to the species of the food producing animal (cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, red deer, wild-boar and hare). Univariate and multivariate statistical analyses revealed significant similarities between the animal origin of the food and the virulence markers of foodborne STEC. Significant associations (p<0.001) were found for stx1 and for stx2 with bovine meat and milk products. The stx2e gene was significantly (p<0.001) associated with STEC from pork and wild boar meat. Stx1c and stx2b genes were significantly (p<0.001) more frequent in STEC from deer meat, as well as from meat and milk products derived from sheep and goats. Using logistic regression models we detected significant (p<0.01) combinations between stx1, stx2 and E-hly genes and STEC from bovine meat. The combination of stx1c and stx2b genes was significant (p<0.001) for STEC derived from red deer, sheep and goat products. The properties of foodborne STEC were compared with published data on faecal STEC from food producing animals. Virulence profiles and serotypes of STEC from food showed remarkable similarities to those of faecal STEC that were from the same animal species. The findings from our study clearly indicate that the food producing animals represent the most important source for the entry of STEC in the food chain. Sound hygiene measures implemented at critical stages of food production (milking, slaughtering, and evisceration) should be most effective in reducing the frequency of STEC contamination of food derived from domestic and wildlife animals.