In the wake of the devastating European E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts that killed at least 50 people and sickened more than 4,000, experts from the European Union and the United States are calling for new research on how to combat toxic strains of E. coli.

In November of 2011, 4 months after the outbreak ended, an international group of public health officials, medical professionals, epidemiologists, microbiologists and environmental scientists met to determine what lessons can be drawn from this epidemic. The results of this summit were released Thursday in Eurosurveillance. 

The group determined that more needs to be learned about shiga toxin-producing E. colis (STECs) such as E. coli O104:H4, the strain responsible for the European outbreak. 

One valuable tool for future studies is data from the outbreak itself. Many novelty treatments were used on patients with HUS, a life-threatening complication of an STEC infection that attacks the kidneys. Experts also suggest research into the affects of antibiotics on STEC patients, as well as ways to remove these toxins from the gastrointestinal tract after diagnosis.

The group also recommended studies to improve the epidemiological process, including improved STEC detection in labs and systems for tracing food back to its source.

Experts stressed the need to understand pathogenic E. coli – how to identify it and how to track it as it evolves in humans, animals and the environment.

Finally, efforts must be made to prevent pathogens from getting into the food supply, the group noted. This can be achieved by pinpointing where in the production process food is at risk of contamination and eliminating product exposure to fecal matter in the environment.  

The committee emphasized the importance of funding the research projects it recommended. 

“As it is an obligation of the scientific community to investigate these research questions it is also in the responsibility of national and international funding bodies to fund the respective research programmes” says the report.

An important part of understanding the value of foodborne illness research will be knowing the cost of an outbreak to society, according to the panel. 

“Estimating the costs of this outbreak and of infectious intestinal disease in general…is pivotal to guide decision makers in rationally allocating financial resources for research and surveillance of infectious diseases.”

The full report is available here