As the nation’s vegetable growers deal with a recent series of E. coli-related illness outbreaks and product recalls, meat industry officials say results from their efforts to combat the bacteria have never been better.

Illness rates associated with E. coli bacteria have fallen near all-time lows amid improvements in testing and other safety practices, said Jim Hodges, an executive vice president with the American Meat Institute.

“There’s been tremendous progress made toward eliminating E. coli” in beef, Hodges said in a phone interview this week. His Washington, D.C.-based group represents most U.S. meat processors. “The prevention systems that we’re using are working.”

Recent government studies reveal a “very low” prevalence of E. coli O157, the strain responsible for most reported illnesses in U.S. beef products, Hodges said.

Hodges pointed to test data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety division, which showed that of 6,836 beef samples collected this year through June, only 18, or 0.26 percent, tested positive for E. coli. The rate of positive results is down almost 70 percent from a decade ago, according to the institute.

E. coli can be found in the intestines of cattle, and illness outbreaks typically involve ground beef tainted with the O157 strain, which has been responsible for nearly all reported outbreaks over the past dozen years.

But over the past few years, concerns surrounding the fresh produce industry have grown following outbreaks from contaminated lettuce and spinach.

This spring, an E. coli outbreak linked to contaminated romaine lettuce brought a unique twist: The illnesses were caused by O145, a lesser-known strain. At least 26 people in five states were sickened, including three who suffered kidney failure.

It was the country’s first reported E. coli outbreak linked to O145, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which described O145 as an “emerging bacterial pathogen” that can produce the same illnesses as O157.

In the wake of recent outbreaks, the U.S. fresh produce industry is in the “crosshairs” of the public health surveillance system, said Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety

As testing technology becomes more sophisticated, “the system is picking up outbreaks that would not have been detected three or four years ago,” Doyle said. “If the produce industry is going to stay ahead of the curve – and there are kinks in the armor – it’s going to have to fill these gaps quickly.”

The O145 is one of about eight “Shiga toxin” producing E. coli strains – or “STECs” - believed to be the most dangerous for humans. Most reported infections involve O157, which can cause bloody diarrhea, severe stomach cramps and vomiting and is responsible for an estimated 70,000 illnesses and 80 deaths every year, according to the CDC.

But it’s not clear whether O145 or some other “emerging” E. coli strain will be problem for the beef industry.

While the Obama Administration has stepped up efforts to tighten food standards and some lawmakers have called for broader restrictions on E. coli for ground beef, the meat industry appears reluctant to expand testing beyond O157.

There is no specific government requirement for the U.S. beef industry to test for E. coli O157. But beef processors perform more than 1 million tests a year to ensure the product is safe, the American Meat Institute’s Hodges said.

Additionally, there have been no reported, confirmed U.S. outbreaks involving ground beef associated with the other Shiga toxin producing strains, including O145, Hodges said.

“We’ve reduced levels of O157 significantly over the past 15 years and research shows the systems the industry uses are also effective against other Shiga toxin producing strains,” Hodges said.

“We can’t guarantee that all raw products are free of pathogens,” Hodges said. “But the industry has continually reduced the prevalence of the organism on beef products.”