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Germany is not having a good time of late on the food safety front. Only a few months ago the country was shaken by a major scandal when it came to light that cancer-causing dioxins had entered the food chain via contaminated animal feed produced by a company in Northern Germany.
The current e coli outbreak, which started at the beginning of May, has made around 3,500 people ill, with 39 recorded deaths so far. Many sufferers are still in hospital in the second half of June.
The STEC strain of e coli identified in the German outbreak, e coli O104:H4, appears to be a rare, highly pernicious mutation. Kidney failure and/or long-term kidney damage is one of the possible consequences resulting from infection, and is the primary cause of death.
People started falling ill on 1 May but it took until 19 May for the Robert Koch Institute (Germany’s Federal Institute for Health Surveillance and Disease Prevention) to receive notification of an illness cluster in the Hamburg region in the state of Lower Saxony. The institute let another four days pass before it decided, on 23 May, that enhanced surveillance of the outbreak was necessary.
Doctors diagnosing haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which implicates damage to the kidneys and can result from e coli infection, have to inform local health authorities within 24 hours. In this outbreak, around one quarter of infected people developed HUS, which is way above the usual 10% rate resulting from EHEC infections.
What became abundantly clear from the incident was that it may take two weeks in Germany before doctors’ notifications are analysed, collated and passed on to federal authorities, and that these are less than swift in taking appropriate action.
Euromonitor International statistics show that fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in Germany had already been falling over the 2005-2010 review period, registering volume sales declines of 6% for fruits and 20% for vegetables.
Tomato volumes shrank by 8%. The e coli debacle has certainly done nothing to help sales recover, and its impact was by no means contained within salad vegetables, which consumers were initially advised to avoid by the German authorities.
At the height of uncertainty, i.e. before the source of the outbreak had been confirmed, shoppers were avoiding a wide range of fresh produce, including Spanish oranges, just to be on the safe side.
The outbreak wreaked havoc across Europe. Besides the obliteration of the domestic German fresh produce market, Spanish growers suffered the most devastating losses.
Spain is a major exporter of fresh produce and was erroneously believed to be harbouring the source of the outbreak in the early stages of the investigation. The Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC), the UK’s fresh produce trade association, estimates that the Europe-wide cost to the industry was at least €560 million (US$800 million), even hitting countries like the UK with no obvious links to the German outbreak.
Some FPC members reported a 20-30% drop in salad product volumes in the UK. On the other hand, Florette Group, a producer of bagged salad products, implied that it had only witnessed a minor fall in UK sales, which could just as well have been down to the rather cold and wet weather during May and June. The company is about to kick off a consumer research study investigating the e coli outbreak’s impact on consumers’ perception of salad.
Furthermore, preliminary investigations appear to have shown that the German farm where the problem originated had complied with existing food safety regulations. The obvious implication is that the measures in place are nowhere near sufficient.
According to official sources, Germany is now in the process of setting up a multi-agency task force to examine what caused this outbreak in the first place, as well as mapping its wider impact. The task force will be composed of representatives from relevant German regional and national organisations, as well as experts drawn from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission.
Not surprisingly, the German e coli incident has led to intensifying calls in favour of food irradiation. Treating high-risk foods, such as sprouts, with high-energy, ionising radiation, which is permitted in many countries, such as the US, would certainly reduce the presence of pathogenic micro-organisms to a significant extent.
Irradiation lengthens shelf life without compromising texture, taste or nutritional content, and does not pose a safety risk. However, consumers are extremely wary of irradiated food, which has to be labelled as such. In consumers’ minds, “irradiated” seems to equate to “radioactive”. Occasional e coli outbreaks, even one as severe as this latest incident, are unlikely to convince consumers to let go of their prejudices towards food irradiation. In times of crisis, consumers, and in particular European ones, would rather avoid suspect produce altogether than opt for a microbiologically safe, but irradiated, alternative.