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Germany’s E. coli Outbreak: A Global Lesson

The gradually diminishing E. coli outbreak in Europe – the deadliest in recorded history – has subjected Germany to a hailstorm of criticism from the EU and abroad for taking too long to identify its likely source — bean and seed sprouts.

But the real concern, many experts say, is the fact that such dangerous bacteria were present on fresh produce in the first place. How the sprout contamination occurred remains a mystery, although in one example of how the epidemic spread, German authorities said Friday that a catering company employee who was infected with the outbreak strain but initially asymptomatic may have transmitted the bacteria to about 20 other people through food she handled.

europeonglobe-featured.jpgDuring an outbreak like this, weaknesses in the food control system are “brutally exposed,” said Dr. Patrick Wall, former chief of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2011 conference this past week in New Orleans. 

As of Friday, the harsh statistics of this epidemic had reached 39 dead and over 3,517 sick, 839 of them with life-threatening kidney disease. 

According to Wall, the European Union will have to institute many reforms to respond to shortcomings in the food safety system highlighted by the Germany outbreak, from how foodborne illnesses are reported to how food is monitored.

More scrutiny for fresh produce  

However, he says, the biggest shift should be instituting safer growing practices, particularly for fruits and vegetables because fresh produce does not receive enough attention under the current food safety system.

Indeed other harmful, Shiga toxin-producing strains of E. coli have been detected on vegetables other than sprouts over the course of the current outbreak investigation, raising questions about the prevalence of E. coli contamination in European produce.

“They found an EHEC (enterohemorrhagic E. coli) in the Spanish cucumbers and they alerted the public, but the cucumbers were subsequently deemed ‘innocent,’ ” said Wall, adding “but you don’t want EHEC on your cucumbers.”

In recent days, E. coli was also found on lettuce from Bavaria, Dutch beet sprouts and on lettuce from Frankfurt, although none of the pathogens was the O104:H4 outbreak strain that has been wreaking havoc in Germany since May 1.

“I think we’re going to have to rewrite the whole script on produce,” Wall said.

In both the United States and Europe, meat undergoes testing for pathogens (albeit not for E. coli O104, the serotype causing this outbreak). ”We are paranoid about microbial quality and testing of cooked meats [in Europe],” says Wall. 

But produce on the continent is monitored less frequently.

And while all meat sold in Europe must meet certain microbial standards, meaning that pathogen levels must be kept below a specified limit, these thresholds are imposed for only two types of produce: pre-washed lettuce and, ironically, bean sprouts. 

Governments can ensure that farmers use best agricultural practices by adopting the safety regulations that private companies have in place for their suppliers, so that food inspectors will have the authority to shut down operations that fail to adhere to the guidelines, says Wall. 

Better communication needed

As effective as safe agricultural measures can be, they cannot guarantee that food will remain completely free of harmful bacteria. Wall recognizes that the right framework must be in place for coping with foodborne illness outbreaks when they occur.   

Germany has come under fire for a lag time of almost a week between when the first cases of HUS were confirmed and when the reports reached the Roberth Koch Institute (RKI), in charge of the outbreak investigation. 

“A better surveillance system and a better early warning system is what we need,” Wall told Food Safety News.

However, Wall cautions, “Improved surveillance .. .is expensive and requires a re-engineering of parts of the health service. Resources for health care are finite and they have to be spent where they deliver the most.”

This is why Wall is emphatic that “the best approach to foodborne disease is prevention,” he reiterated in an emailed statement to Food Safety News.

The German public also sees faults in the way the crisis was handled. According to the results of a survey published in the Magazine Stern, a majority of Germans were not satisfied with their government’s response to the crisis. About 44 percent of those surveyed said there were too many warnings; 21 percent felt they didn’t have enough information.

Food Safety: Global, Not Just Local

Although the outbreak of E. coli O104 was unusually centralized — all of those sickened in Germany and 16 other countries either had been in northern Germany or had contact with someone who was there — the lessons learned from the epidemic must be absorbed internationally, Wall says.

“We’re eating off a global plate,” he noted.

Indeed, according to Der Spiegel, the sprout seeds from the organic farm implicated in the outbreak came from Southern Europe and Asia as well as Germany, evidence that even food grown and sold locally can have an international source or connection. 

Especially in a free market like the EU zone, where goods travel freely across borders, Wall says it’s important to monitor foods produced by each state. 

This applies to surveillance as well as safe-growing standards. Wall says,13 of the 27 EU countries currently don’t have the ability to genetically fingerprint the O104 bug causing this outbreak. Each country within the European market needs to rise to the same standards in order for it to ensure the safety of its citizens, according to Wall.

However, Wall notes, there is “no time to fix [food safety problems] when the event is happening.”

This is why he says it’s important to use “peace time,” when a major outbreak is not taking place, to implement measures necessary to cope with the next outbreak.

The problem with “peace time,” is that during these periods, foodborne illness does not appear as threatening. 

“Currently, my colleagues at the FDA and USDA tell me that their resources are being cut back,” he noted, “so although you have food safety problems — you had that big peanut outbreak and there were a lot of people talking about it —  in peace time … it’s hard to quantify, and so nobody wants to give you the resources.”

Wall warned all countries to get on board in adopting effective food safety measures. 

“The next one won’t be in Germany, it’ll be in some other country,” he said. “We don’t really know the root cause of this yet. When we do, we’ll have to fix it.  We have to learn the lessons from Germany.”

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    Can’t argue with Dr. Wall’s intelligent and practical insight. Too bad he’s the *former* chief of the European Food Safety Authority. He’s a food safety professional with a level head on his shoulders!
    Who succeeded Dr. Wall as chief, and why haven’t we heard anything sensible out of them?

  • Maureen Reilly

    Over 3,000 people in Germany have been shedding the E.coli O104 into sewage. In Northern Germany many cities continue to spread sewage sludge on farm fields as fertilizer.
    Is Germany going to allow the sewage sludge ‘biosolids’ that may be carrying this virulent pathogen onto farmlands?
    Can they find a more hygenic way to manage sludge?
    Maureen Reilly
    Sludge Watch
    Toronto

  • jmunsell

    The very first paragraph includes a thought provoking statement, saying “taking too long to identify its likely SOURCE” (emphasis added). In spite of problems within the EU produce safety system which were brought to light by this 0104 outbreak, EU dedicates a higher priority to detecting the SOURCE than does USDA/FSIS when confronted with E.coli 0157:H7 in our domestic meat supply. FSIS blithely assesses all liability for H7 against the downstream destination facilities (restaurants, grinding plants, retail meat markets) which unwittingly purchase meat from their source slaughter providers which is already laced with invisible pathogens. While FSIS pays lip service to tracebacks to the source, the agency has done precious little to accomplish such tracebacks.
    Another salient point in this article is the statement that “the best approach to foodborne disease is prevention”. Absolutely true. Prevention is primarily accomplished at the SOURCE, preventing pathogen-laced food to be shipped into commerce in the first place. USDA Under Secretary at FSIS, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, has placed Prevention as her highest priority in several speeches. Whether she can successfully convince all the agency lifers to place their primary focus on prevention remains to be seen. FSIS bureaucrats have traditionally placed primary emphasis on corrective actions..downstream, not prevention at the source. Until the FSIS bureaucracy aggressively embraces the need for prevention at the source, which would be aided by successful tracebacks to the source, outbreaks and recalls will remain a normal part of our domestic economy.
    John Munsell

  • http://www.marlerblog.com/case-news/american-food-service-recalls-3170-pounds-of-e-coli-tainted-ground-beef/ Doc Mudd

    John, I swear you must have a live computer feed that alerts you with whistles and sirens anytime anyone anywhere types the word “SOURCE” (emphasis added) into their keyboard.
    I think Dr. Patrick Wall was discussing rampant fecal contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables and an obvious need to reform growing practices across Europe.
    I doubt he possesses time or authority to make Elizabeth Hagen & FSIS do as you tell them re: jockeying meat scraps from pillar to post here in the States. But, speaking once again of veggies; how are F&WW’s Meatless Mondays working out for you and the good ‘ol girls over at R-CALF? Have y’all remained faithful to the F&WW pro-veggie platform, no backsliding in the face of windfall cattle prices?

  • John Munsell

    The very first paragraph includes a thought provoking statement, saying “taking too long to identify its likely SOURCE” (emphasis added). In spite of problems within the EU produce safety system which were brought to light by this 0104 outbreak, EU dedicates a higher priority to detecting the SOURCE than does USDA/FSIS when confronted with E.coli 0157:H7 in our domestic meat supply. FSIS blithely assesses all liability for H7 against the downstream destination facilities (restaurants, grinding plants, retail meat markets) which unwittingly purchase meat from their source slaughter providers which is already laced with invisible pathogens. While FSIS pays lip service to tracebacks to the source, the agency has done precious little to accomplish such tracebacks.
    Another salient point in this article is the statement that “the best approach to foodborne disease is prevention”. Absolutely true. Prevention is primarily accomplished at the SOURCE, preventing pathogen-laced food to be shipped into commerce in the first place. USDA Under Secretary at FSIS, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, has placed Prevention as her highest priority in several speeches. Whether she can successfully convince all the agency lifers to place their primary focus on prevention remains to be seen. FSIS bureaucrats have traditionally placed primary emphasis on corrective actions..downstream, not prevention at the source. Until the FSIS bureaucracy aggressively embraces the need for prevention at the source, which would be aided by successful tracebacks to the source, outbreaks and recalls will remain a normal part of our domestic economy.
    John Munsell

  • jmunsell

    Hey Doc! You’ll never hear me apologize for stressing the need to determine the SOURCE of contamination, and then forcing the source to implement corrective actions to prevent future recurrences. FSIS policies continue to oppose my primary focus on determining the SOURCE, and it appears you share the agency’s desire to insulate the source from accountability.
    F&WW and R-Calf USA also endorse the idea of identifying the source, for which you’ll not hear them apologize.
    John Munsell

  • jmunsell

    Doc Mudd: I’ve done some research on F&WW, and have found nothing which indicates that F&WW advocates Meatless Mondays, criticizes meat consumption, or advocating vegeterianism. Please provide the F&WW news statements which justify your claims. If you can’t provide proof, Bill Marler should exclude you from commenting on this blog. John Munsell

  • Doc Mudd

    http://beefmagazine.com/cowcalfweekly/0903-r-calfs-unholy-alliances/
    There you go, John, direct from your former industry colleagues…but I shouldn’t have to tell you who you and R-CALF have been sucking up to and where your credibility has vanished to, should I, eh?
    Your masters at F&WW are tutoring you in slippery tactics pretty well, got you agitating to have opposing viewpoints silenced. Can’t take the exposure? You drug store cowgirls over at R-CALF have made your bed, now lie in it without whining and weasling (if your handlers will permit you, of course).
    So, anything else I can help you with?
    Embrace the veggies like a good water carrier, John! Be proud of what R-CALF has become!!

  • John Munsell

    Hey Doc! You’ll never hear me apologize for stressing the need to determine the SOURCE of contamination, and then forcing the source to implement corrective actions to prevent future recurrences. FSIS policies continue to oppose my primary focus on determining the SOURCE, and it appears you share the agency’s desire to insulate the source from accountability.
    F&WW and R-Calf USA also endorse the idea of identifying the source, for which you’ll not hear them apologize.
    John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    Doc Mudd: I’ve done some research on F&WW, and have found nothing which indicates that F&WW advocates Meatless Mondays, criticizes meat consumption, or advocating vegeterianism. Please provide the F&WW news statements which justify your claims. If you can’t provide proof, Bill Marler should exclude you from commenting on this blog. John Munsell

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    As an ancient energy engineer, I continually am appalled at society’s acceptance or rejection of technology, and its associated risks. Within the last several months, three nukes have suffered melt downs. One melt down was judged to be the end of the world. Yet no one had been killed, ever, in a civilian nuclear accident of western design. (Chernobyl was not an accident, but was due to an illegal test. All key safety systems were disconnected; the plant manager went to jail. And the basic design is considered unsafe in western societies. There have been “inferred” deaths in western nukes.)
    However scores are dead or permanently crippled by bean sprouts. Why? No one knows but it is highly suspected that a farm worker practiced poor hygiene.
    Man has known since the 1950s that radiation will kill pathogens on food. It is called cold pasteurization.
    But it is not used. Why? Because some say that it may be dangerous. And since it is not widely used, no one knows.
    So what is the result of these social trends? Germany has abandoned nuclear power, due to fear of radiation.
    But not bean sprouts, or unhygienic farm workers. Which kill. Every year many people die from eating deadly food.
    Every technology carries risks. One large risk is abandoning the benefits of technology.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    As an ancient energy engineer, I continually am appalled at society’s acceptance or rejection of technology, and its associated risks. Within the last several months, three nukes have suffered melt downs. One melt down was judged to be the end of the world. Yet no one had been killed, ever, in a civilian nuclear accident of western design. (Chernobyl was not an accident, but was due to an illegal test. All key safety systems were disconnected; the plant manager went to jail. And the basic design is considered unsafe in western societies. There have been “inferred” deaths in western nukes.)
    However scores are dead or permanently crippled by bean sprouts. Why? No one knows but it is highly suspected that a farm worker practiced poor hygiene.
    Man has known since the 1950s that radiation will kill pathogens on food. It is called cold pasteurization.
    But it is not used. Why? Because some say that it may be dangerous. And since it is not widely used, no one knows.
    So what is the result of these social trends? Germany has abandoned nuclear power, due to fear of radiation.
    But not bean sprouts, or unhygienic farm workers. Which kill. Every year many people die from eating deadly food.
    Every technology carries risks. One large risk is abandoning the benefits of technology.

  • jmunsell

    Doc Mudd:
    I’ve done more research, only to discover you make erroneous conclusions. The Meatrix finds fault with the factory farm system, and is anti-big ag. Many folks share this concern. Meatrix is not anti-meat, but anti-big farm and big ag, which you represent.
    F&WW promoted the movie Food, Inc, which was critical of big ag (which you support),with NO bias against meat consumption.
    Meatless Monday was a campaign started at Johns Hopkins University, and not endorsed by F&WW. It is true that F&WW has partnered with Johns Hopkins on projects, but Meatless Monday was not one of them, which you well know. Folks have relationships with a variety of organizations, while not endorsing all activities of those organizations. Reminds me of Meatingplace blogs, which includes the normal disclaimer which states “The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author”. Therefore, we can’t claim that Meatingplace endorses all comments made by its variety of bloggers.
    Doc, you are certainly entitled to endorse big ag. You have the right to watch small ag producers bite the dust while the multinational food corporations expand, a fact well documented by ag statistics. However, you are totally off base to claim that all anti-big ag organizations are anti-meat and pro-vegeterians who promote Meatless Mondays.
    By the way, for whom do you and did you work? Divulge your background. Don’t be afraid of the spotlight.
    John Munsell
    I’ve found no statements on F&WW website about

  • John Munsell

    Doc Mudd:
    I’ve done more research, only to discover you make erroneous conclusions. The Meatrix finds fault with the factory farm system, and is anti-big ag. Many folks share this concern. Meatrix is not anti-meat, but anti-big farm and big ag, which you represent.
    F&WW promoted the movie Food, Inc, which was critical of big ag (which you support),with NO bias against meat consumption.
    Meatless Monday was a campaign started at Johns Hopkins University, and not endorsed by F&WW. It is true that F&WW has partnered with Johns Hopkins on projects, but Meatless Monday was not one of them, which you well know. Folks have relationships with a variety of organizations, while not endorsing all activities of those organizations. Reminds me of Meatingplace blogs, which includes the normal disclaimer which states “The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author”. Therefore, we can’t claim that Meatingplace endorses all comments made by its variety of bloggers.
    Doc, you are certainly entitled to endorse big ag. You have the right to watch small ag producers bite the dust while the multinational food corporations expand, a fact well documented by ag statistics. However, you are totally off base to claim that all anti-big ag organizations are anti-meat and pro-vegeterians who promote Meatless Mondays.
    By the way, for whom do you and did you work? Divulge your background. Don’t be afraid of the spotlight.
    John Munsell
    I’ve found no statements on F&WW website about

  • Doc Mudd

    Take it up with Troy Marshall, over at Beef magazine, John. Troy’s a straight-shooter (and you know that), instead of lurching and spinning here like a child’s top.
    http://beefmagazine.com/cowcalfweekly/0903-r-calfs-unholy-alliances/
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/09/is-the-r-calf-gang-eating-grilled-avocado/
    We’ve been through this tedious ‘who are you shilling for’ schtick before; nothing has changed – I don’t work for any dreadful “big-ag” corporation like Monsanto, nor do I carry water for any hateful inbred anti-ag activist cult like F&WW, R-CALF, NOFA, FARFA, etc., ad nauseum. Just callin’ BS when I’m being fed it and lately I seem to have struck a mother-lode…reached the *SOURCE* (emphasis added), as it were.
    To avoid derailing this thread any further and save some time, here’s where this tiresome ‘who ya shillin for’ gambit unfolded in all its grim glory last time, (in case there’s any lonely bystander who just can’t get enough drama now that Oprah’s leaving the airwaves)…
    http://www.marlerblog.com/case-news/hazelnuts-shipped-to-minnesota-iowa-michigan-montana-north-dakota-south-dakota-and-wisconsin-linked/
    Hmmm…you wouldn’t be deliberately trying to distract us from the reality of those fecal-contaminated German organic vegetables here (remember those, the topic of this thread?), would you John?

  • jmunsell

    Doc, I notice you fail to reveal who your employer is, from what source(s) you get your paycheck. You also have failed to explain why you are opposed to traceback to the SOURCE of food contamination, revealing again that you are employed by big ag. That is the crux of this discussion, as related in the first paragraph of this blog.
    Please explain to all of us your justification for opposing traceback to the SOURCE. The Germans successfully did so, why are you insulating the source slaughter plants from accountability?
    John Munsell

  • Doc Mudd

    Nope, not “employed by big ag”, John.
    You’re guessin’ wild…”revealing” that you are a German epidemiologist.

  • John Munsell

    Doc, I notice you fail to reveal who your employer is, from what source(s) you get your paycheck. You also have failed to explain why you are opposed to traceback to the SOURCE of food contamination, revealing again that you are employed by big ag. That is the crux of this discussion, as related in the first paragraph of this blog.
    Please explain to all of us your justification for opposing traceback to the SOURCE. The Germans successfully did so, why are you insulating the source slaughter plants from accountability?
    John Munsell