Other U.S. media had not yet figured out that an epic food safety story was breaking on the other side of the world when Food Safety News writer Gretchen Goetz was told to break off her vacation in France and head to Hamburg, Germany.

For about a week, including the long Memorial Day weekend, Food Safety News found itself practically alone among U.S. media in covering the most deadly E. coli outbreak in recorded history. Checking every day — New York Times, NPR, and even the BBC — I was not finding much.

In addition to the “ground zero” coverage we were getting from having Gretchen in Northern Germany, others at FSN were also cranking out stories. Ross Anderson was pounding out stories that made it clear why the E coli O104:H4 outbreak is such a big deal.

The sheer numbers including most deaths ever, the disproportionate number of women victims, the alarming number of HUS cases, and the dispute about how new the O104 strain might be were all topics that readers were getting here.

In addition to helping out with interviews of European officials, Helena Bottemiller reported on Washington D.C.’s reaction and inaction. Our week of Euro-E. coli coverage was all amply handed by Mary Rothschild on our news desk in Seattle.

In any offensive, it is important to have somebody hang back in reserve in case there is a surprise development. I was actually hanging back thinking that this might yet get connected to bioterrorism. It sure read to me like something engineered in a laboratory somewhere and Hamburg has generated some bad actors.

But nobody was making any claims, suggestions or even hints of that.

As for the FSN offensive, we know when to quit. American media are over this like white on rice. We’ve told Gretchen she can come home. We will continue to cover  the Euro E. coli story, we just won’t be alone any more.

  • In some ways the lack of reporting is a consequence of too many sources of information and too many recalls being made on a regular basis. News agencies and reporters, not involved in food safety or food justice issues are simply not equipped to handle the massive flood of scientific, industrial and regulatory knowledge required to report such stories properly. Furthermore, as the number of food safety related issues arise from our more-than-inadequate food regulatory system, citizens become wary and weary of food recalls, until all too late. As for news agencies, food safety issues are not considered newsworthy until bodies hit the morgue.
    For Europeans though, the EHEC under-reporting may have to do with the particular political culture of the EU. First, Europeans think their food system is safer than that of the US, thus food safety issues are often seen as alarmist or “American” vs. that of a real public health issue. Secondly, food safety scares have been rare in Europe (why this hasn’t happened earlier may be from dumb luck), thus there has been little experience handling a massive EU-wide outbreak as EHEC at all levels. Regulators, public health officials, business and consumers were all inadequately prepared to deal with the realities of a tangled food system.
    Regardless of geography, this will happen more often than probably we wish to think. China melamine scandals, Vietnamese pollution in fish farms, and pesticide ridden Mexican produce is just the tip of the iceberg. US food scandals are sadly become the norm as opposed to an aberration. How many more will become ill before governments around the world decide to pay more attention? Thanks FSN for doing the work that governments should be doing – and sadly, your job is a thankless task.