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.
During 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.”