E.coli Epidemic: Germany Today, U.S. Tomorrow (6/10)     Print Email

The E.coli epidemic in Germany has scared people across Europe: more than 30 are dead (more than in the nuclear accident in Japan) and up to 3,000 people are sick; restaurants have posted signs explaining that they are not serving vegetables (even tomatoes in sandwiches); consumers are frightened about eating fresh vegetables, even from organic growers; farmers and businesses have lost crops worth of hundreds of millions of euros and the health authorities face a mystery that they have been slow to solve.

UPDATE (7/18): E.COLI – U.S. COMPANIES ACT TO PROTECT CUSTOMERS. As the U.S. federal government continues to delay acting against the new strains of E.coli, major American companies – including Costco Wholesale and Beef Products Inc. – have decided to take matters into their own hands. Their precautionary efforts focus on the six rare deadly strains of the E.coli bacteria which public health experts have identified but have not targeted for systematic screening. Now the companies are starting themselves to test for the six additional strains of E.coli and could start taking suspect products off the market. Original article continues here..

That situation persisted for nearly a month until the German authorities announced on June 10 that the cause of the food poisoning was bean sprouts raised on an organic farm in northern Germany. The authorities said that no actual E.coli bacteria had been linked to the bean sprouts, but that the pattern of disease had identified the source. The health authorities lifted their warning against eating other fruits and vegetables that had been suspected as possible carriers.

The outcome leaves a big bill for damages, especially to Spanish farmers who had been falsely accused as the source of the outbreak. But the most enduring damage may turn out to be a further erosion of public confidence in the reliability of the public health system across Europe – already damaged after earlier scares involving mad cow disease and other outbreaks causing mass sickness.

The issues raised by the crisis are not just European: they are transatlantic and, given globalization in air travel, worldwide. American health authorities admit that they fear a similar outbreak of this particularly deadly new strain of E.coli among Americans, if not this time then sometime in the future. Sooner or later, “it will happen here,” according to U.S. food-safety expert Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The severity of the outbreak in Germany stemmed from the fact that the E.coli involved is a very virulent strain and one that is resistant to antibiotics – a factor that makes it hard to spot the bacteria and prevent infections from spreading.

UPDATE (8/4): SALMONELLA SURGE IN THE U.S. AND EUROPE. U.S. agricultural giant Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of turkey meat after the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control discovered strains of salmonella in Cargill meat samples. So far, the antibiotic-resistant salmonella "superbug" has caused one death and close to 80 other cases of illness across the U.S. Across the Atlantic, a strain of salmonella resistant to the most powerful antibiotics has been found in the UK, France and Denmark. The strain – known as S. Kentucky – is said to originate in Africa. (Likewise, the E.coli epidemic was eventually traced back through London to Egypt.) Original article continues here..

On both sides of the Atlantic, tracking the source of such lethal bacteria outbreak requires national coordination, great lab work – and some luck.

In Germany, health officials faced an additional complication: problems with information exchange among Germany’s regional states, where health authorities that control local hospitals and disease-control centers are autonomous. In the U.S., in contrast, the Center for Disease Control and a nationwide network of hospitals have early warning system enabling immediate responses to prevent epidemics.

That level of rapid coordination, especially on E.coli, stems partly from an earlier serious meat-borne E.coli epidemic in the U.S. In 1993, Jack in The Box (a fast-food hamburger chain) caused four deaths before the tainted meat was identified and stopped. The incident heightened American awareness of food risk, and one result was the establishment of a registry system for every suspicious group of gastro-intestinal infection.

Even amid this heightened U.S. concern, action still lags behind ambitions. Last year, Congress passed a law authorizing food inspections by the Food and Drug Administration in an effort to detect disease before it sickened people. But the law has remained a dead letter in practice because Congress has never appropriated funds to carry out the precautionary actions stipulated in the law.

On both sides of the Atlantic fighting this E.coli strain remains a daunting task. The task requires detective work such as to back up the channels of distribution and supply chains of what appears to be a complex delivery system and to set a detailed travel and consumption history of sick individuals and test the food that is suspected to contain the bacteria, isolate and match it with the patient. But above all a certain amount of luck, says Michael Dunne, a microbiologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. In 2006, an E.coli outbreak on spinach was contained within 10 days because investigators uncovered the source quickly.

In Germany, health officials seemed to stumble. Initially, they pointed the finger at imported Spanish cucumbers, advising people not to eat any cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and raw food. At that point, Russia banned all fresh produce imports from the E.U. After Spain’s angry protests, their cucumbers were exonerated. German bean sprouts were then accused, then exonerated and now finally confirmed. The process took so much time that many analysts feared that the source might never be identified as the trails of sickness and sources became too numerous and vague to track. 

The slow result has left anger among Spaniards (many of whom complain that they were scape-goated by Germans who themselves are irritated by the need to bail out the economies of southern European countries). The German public reportedly has been frightened by what they see as German authorities’ mismanagement of the crisis – starting with the time lag before local authorities released news of serious new cases of infection.

E.coli is a long-standing, well-recognized threat – that still seems to elude the defense of public health in the E.U. and the U.S. American health authorities have long known about the “big six” potentially lethal E.coli strains, but they have not yet been declared “adulterant” – the appropriate biological term for poisoning – and so food inspectors don’t test for them and yet they’re in the food. As a result, the U.S. has cases of infections every year, but they are contained before they can spread to epidemic proportions.

Europe faces a greater challenge: rules and standards vary among E.U. countries.

There are budgetary constraints on modernizing and enforcing better food safety. But the costs of not doing so are high. In the German E.coli outbreak, the costs in lost business were estimated per week at 200 millions euros in Spain, 80 in Netherlands and 20 in Germany. The European Commission has promised 210 million euros in compensation to farmers. But more will be sought – including damages to Spain from German accusations.

Expensive as it is in lives lost and financial cost, the E.coli episode may serve as a warning and a wake-up-call on both sides of the Atlantic in time to deal more effectively with future fast-spreading outbreaks of deadly bacteria.


Jean Berard-Quelin is an Editorial Assistant for European Affairs