The E. coli outbreak in Germany is serious but is the panic-stricken public making the situation worse? Leila Sattary investigates the killer German bean sprouts
The outbreak of E. coli poisoning in Germany has made headlines news around the world. At the time of writing, the Europe-wide case count has reached 3,401 with 39 deaths and many of the surviving suffering from a life-threatening kidney condition.
The source of this particular strain of E. coli has been traced back to an organic vegetable farm in Northern Germany. The outbreak is unusual in that it has developed rapidly and an unusually high number of cases have affected adults (86% are in people aged 18 years or older), particularly women (67%), instead of the normal high-risk groups of children and the elderly. The new strain of E. coli colonises the gut and produces a toxin called Shiga. Afflicted patients experience bloody diarrhoea and the most serious cases cause haemolytic uraemic syndrome which can eventually cause kidney failure.
An early suggestion from Germany officials blamed Spanish cucumbers. The effect was devastating for Spanish exports. The European Commission has since agreed to pay €210m in compensation to growers whose produce had to be thrown away. In a massive overreaction, Russia imposed a complete ban on vegetable imports from all 27 EU countries, including the UK. The damage to our fragile European economy is quite significant and unnecessary. The source of the E. coli was identified from one particular farm. Recalling their produce or even just stopping eating bean sprouts for a couple of weeks would have ensured that the damage was limited.
The best piece of food safety advice remains to cook your food. In most cases this is the best method to control infection but what about lovely fresh salads? There is more effective but less popular way – irradiation. Blasting food with a few gamma or x-rays kills most pathogens and also increases the shelf life of our foods. At the moment, irradiation is only approved in the EU for spices. In fact, my first ever job in the lab was in Glasgow testing the levels of residual radiation remaining in endless jars of irradiated spices. While the UK restricts the use of irradiation on foods, the Netherlands and France also irradiate their poultry. Interestingly it was Germany who has blocked a wider EU approval of irradiation. Technology has been essential in the improvement of our food safety – fridges, cans, and pasteurisation. It is sensible to be wary of irradiating foods to kill the bugs, but the time has come to get over the worry about radiation. We could easily test it thoroughly and introduce it more widely if we were not concerned about the public reaction.
The source of the E. coli infection, a German organic farm, is under suspicion in an investigation as they do not use chemical fertilisers putting crops at greater risk of contamination from bacteria in manure. This raises the controversial idea that organic food might actually be more dangerous for you than GM food or products produced with fertilisers and pesticides.
While this incident is not a trivial matter, it must be understood in the grand scheme of things. The deaths related to E. coli attract the media because they can be spun to remind us that we are all vulnerable to misfortune. The actual danger to any veggie-loving European, even in Hamburg where cases are concentrated, is still low. However, risk perception is a mix of facts and feelings and in many cases the gut reaction (no pun intended) has the greater influence on our actions.
The E. coli outbreak in Germany is now tailing off and is unlikely to cause many more deaths. The questions remain over what caused the i at the German organic farm, why the E. coli was a particularly difficult strain to eradicate and if we need to up food standards and whether irradiation might be the answer.