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Is Germany’s Outbreak Source Human, not Cow?

Nancy Donley, an avid and educated food safety advocate with STOP Foodborne Illness (previously Safe Tables Our Priority), has often said, and I can only paraphrase here, that if you go back far enough in any E. coli outbreak investigation, you will eventually bump into a cow.  

I assume she was referring to O157:H7, but many have taken those words to mean ANY E. coli outbreak. The rationale is that even if the food vector were produce or drinking water, the produce or water probably became contaminated by cow manure containing the E. coli pathogen, a reasonably safe conclusion. The contamination could occur through spreading manure as fertilizer, contaminated irrigation water, pathogens spread by furry animals, etc.

But an interesting report regarding the disaster occurring in Germany was just shared with me by one of the leading E. coli experts in the United States. You can read it yourself here, but I warn you that if your computer does not have the translate function, you will have to read German.

The home page for BfR (Bundesinstitut fur Risikobewertung) says “BfR is responsible in Germany for scientific risk assessments in consumer health protection.”  The home page also states they are heavily involved in the search for the source of the E. coli O104:H4 that is causing such devastation in Europe.

As we have heard before, the report cited above says that the current strain is probably a recombinant of two pathogenic E. coli types, and that “(B)ased on the strain analysis of the serotype O104:H4, BfR believes that it is likely that the transfer of the pathogen to the affected food could have been caused in the current outbreak event via humans or from humans via the environment.”

The BfR goes on to explain why in very scientific language, but in a very simplified version I will try and explain what I have digested from the BfR report.

STECs (Shiga toxin-producing E. coli) hosts are generally ruminants, cows being the most frequently mentioned. After a DNA sequence analysis carried out in a strain associated with the current outbreak, it was determined that the serovar EHEC O104:H4 has more commonalities with the enteroaggregative E. coli (EaggEC) than with the conventional Shiga toxin-forming E. coli (STEC).

The current pathogen in the limelight has 93% similarity with an EaggEC which has already been characterized. The reservoir for EaggEC is human, not ruminant, as far as the current knowledge states, but the report does state very clearly that “only a few EHEC O104 strains have been found all over the world.”

This EaggEC pathogen type has not been detected so far in animals. So, maybe in this case we will not “eventually bump into a cow” but will bump into a human–or two.

Just maybe we are now back to looking at the two workers at the sprouting establishment (rumored to  now be 3) who were sick from the E. coli O104:H4?

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    Welcome, at last, Doc R. to the real world of medical microbiology, where humans are logically as much a part of the global ecosystem as farm animals.
    Be forewarned: your gentle insinuation that humans and not domesticated livestock might possibly be the source will bring anti-agriculture zealots down on you like a ton of humanure.
    Mighty thin ice you’re treading with the full-time industry-haters when you place any accountability at the doorstep of ordinary homo sapiens (the haters consider themselves human and will, under no circumstances, accept any degree of personal accountability..for anything…ever). You are either very brave or very naive to open this can of worms, Doc. Good luck and godspeed to you, sir.

  • Hmmm. I recall reading an article several years ago that discussed the use of human excrement (as in poop) to fertilize fields in some developing countries. Turns out that the farmers who use it don’t want human excrement from the poor neighborhoods because it doesn’t contain as many nutrients as the “stuff” from wealthy neighborhoods. Perhaps this sort of food poisoning has been happening all along in some countries but was never looked into because there aren’t enough health officials or testing facilities to do that . . . or enough information about it.
    Just something to think about.

  • ndonley

    Good article Dr. Raymond; very informative. However, I would like to set the record straight about what I’ve said in the past and continue to say today, and that is, in an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, if you look back far enough, you will probably bump into a cow. Small differences from what you said but they do make a big difference! I am very aware that O157 has been found in other animal hosts. I also want to commend you, Dick, for the excellent cases that you and Carol Tucker Foreman been presenting about non-O157 STEC and the need for USDA/FSIS to classify them as adulterants. We at STOP Foodborne Illness couldn’t agree more.

  • doc raymond

    Nancy, thanks for the clarification. That is why I said I could only paraphrase since I did not have the actual statement in front of me. “Probably” versus “eventually” is definitely two different meanings.
    Doc Mudd, I only try to prevent the facts as I learn them. This is an interesting piece of information that will probably not hold water when the day is done, but for now it does create the need for some out of the box thinking, something not done easily by some.
    And Cookson, in those poor neighborhoods in thsoe developing countries, human excrement may actually contain a high number of larvae that could create further human illnesses. Not sure about the nutrient content you mention.

  • Hmmm. I recall reading an article several years ago that discussed the use of human excrement (as in poop) to fertilize fields in some developing countries. Turns out that the farmers who use it don’t want human excrement from the poor neighborhoods because it doesn’t contain as many nutrients as the “stuff” from wealthy neighborhoods. Perhaps this sort of food poisoning has been happening all along in some countries but was never looked into because there aren’t enough health officials or testing facilities to do that . . . or enough information about it.
    Just something to think about.

  • Nancy Donley

    Good article Dr. Raymond; very informative. However, I would like to set the record straight about what I’ve said in the past and continue to say today, and that is, in an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, if you look back far enough, you will probably bump into a cow. Small differences from what you said but they do make a big difference! I am very aware that O157 has been found in other animal hosts. I also want to commend you, Dick, for the excellent cases that you and Carol Tucker Foreman been presenting about non-O157 STEC and the need for USDA/FSIS to classify them as adulterants. We at STOP Foodborne Illness couldn’t agree more.