German E. coli outbreak may lead to changes

by Staff
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NEW ORLEANS — New regulations, improved surveillance and disease prevention strategies, particularly pertaining to produce, will likely emerge in the European Union and throughout the world following the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany, Patrick Wall, the former chair of the European Food Safety Authority, said at a press briefing during the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and food expo.

More than 3,000 people have become ill and 37 people have died, to date, following a rare E. coli outbreak that originated from German-grown bean sprouts.

“Once you have an outbreak like this it exposes weakness,” Dr. Wall said. “There’s not time to fix them when an event is happening, and no one wants to give you resources when nothing is happening.”

Dr. Wall is currently an associate professor at University College Dublin’s School of Public Health and was the first chief executive of the Irish Food Safety Authority.

He said there are usually six potential causes of food-borne illness outbreaks: contaminated ingredients, inadequate storage and refrigeration, insufficient cooking, cross contamination from raw products to cooked products, inadequate hygiene facilities for staff, and poorly trained and supervised staff.

When a disease outbreak does occur, virus confirmation typically takes four or five days. During the recent German outbreak, confirming the source took more than two weeks, fanning speculation and fear that resulted in the boycott and destruction of some produce in Europe.

Officials currently don’t know the root cause of the outbreak, Dr. Wall said. He emphasized changes will need to be made in Germany and throughout the world following the outbreak.

Pathogens, or disease-causing agents, may come into contact with produce, or they may actually be grown into fruits and vegetables through tainted water or soil.

“People think if you wash vegetables your produce is safe,” Dr. Wall said. “But if they are grown in contaminated water, you can’t wash off (the disease).”

The issue is further complicated by today’s food globalization. While produce, meat and dairy may come from a local farm, the livestock may have received vitamins or medication from one part of the world, and the fertilizer used to grow crops from another.

“The journey from farm to fork is not a straight line,” Dr. Wall said. “When you eat a meal you are eating off a global plate. We need consistent science throughout the world that is compatible with commerce.”

Robert Gravani, president of the Institute of Food Technologists, who joined Dr. Wall at the news conference, said “the best strategies are prevention strategies” for ensuring safety of the food supply, especially produce.

“It’s very important that farmers have a food safety plan in place,” Dr. Gravani said, who is also a professor of food science and the director of the National Good Agricultural Practices Program at Cornell University. He said a farm-based food safety plan includes regulations that ensure clean irrigation water, manure and compost heated to pathogen-destroying temperatures, and ensuring livestock is kept separate from crops and harvested food.
Most large retailers in the United States require their produce suppliers to have farm-food safety plans in place, Dr. Gravani said. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to issue new produce safety guidelines later this year.

“We need to come up with a good agricultural practice to ensure safety,” Dr. Wall said. “Testing is not the solution; it’s too expensive. We want produce to be cheap and readily available. If not, only the wealthy will be healthy.”

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