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As The Dust Settles On The European E. Coli Outbreak, The US Industry Weighs In On Key Points

Our special report titled, As The European E. coli 0104:H4 Outbreak Causes Illness And Death, It Wreaks Havoc On The Produce Trade And Breaks Confidence In Public Health: Lessons From Europe, brought many responses. Some focused on the relevance to the United States:

A very good Special Report. There is no doubt but that Germany’s deadly food safety incident raises significant questions for the fresh produce industry in the United States: the moving target of what human pathogen to test for; the actual value of enhanced traceability systems; how to improve epidemiology; how to handle compensation for growers and others caught up in a devastating marketing problem not of their making; and where now to target scarce research dollars. And the list goes on.

I expect the unfolding experience in Germany will set the stage for some interesting discussions at the Center for Produce Safety’s June 27-28 meeting in Orlando, Florida.

— Christian Schlect
Northwest Horticultural Council
Yakima, Washington

Others saw the issue through the prism of personal responsibility versus reliance on government:

Insightful analysis and on point regarding the brief conclusions in the last 3 paragraphs.

The problem is that we have now added a glut of real time information to both experts and the public alike, much of it incomplete and some erroneous.  This fact, along with human nature (which “changes not”) to be prideful, blame-assigning, risk-averse, will continue to result in all of the circumstances you site in this case with the next outbreak. 

No matter the motive, government bureaucrats and industry trade groups and academics have “promised” the public “food safety” and that promise has been believed.  The “genie is out of the bottle” and personal responsibility was forced in its place with the ”cork” firmly replaced.

— Daniel Barth
General Manager
Super King Markets
Los Angeles, California

Others remind us that statistics can be deceiving when collected by various groups under disparate standards:

Some years ago, when I decided to take a second Master’s to update my technical knowledge, I took a food microbiology course. I was shocked to find out that only 17 out of 50 states report their epidemiology data to the CDC, which is why you hear about outbreaks from NY, MA, MN, etc., but never from others who refuse to spend money on a state health service.

I took the course in 2006. Has the situation changed after all the recent outbreaks, and the passing of the new Food Safety law? I doubt it, but would be pleased to hear that the CDC are working from better information nowadays !

— Richard Yudin
Technical & Environmental Manager
Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Some took exception to some of our points:

Your recent piece on the European e-coli outbreak was, as usual, comprehensive and insightful. I do, however, have to take exception to something you propose. You suggest in point 7 that ‘the focus on traceability should be moved to epidemiology’. I couldn’t disagree more.

You could mount virtually all of the industry resources available and still not get epidemiology ‘right’. As you point out, in the E. coli outbreak in Europe, work in microbiology is continually evolving and, despite the best science has to offer, will continue to confound mankind with new strains of pathogens and disease that we don’t expect.

So the events in Europe demonstrate why it’s MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER to move toward a uniform and effective traceability process that enables IDENTIFICATION — ISOLATION — COMMUNICATION to take place as expediently as possible. The biggest enemy in a food safety outbreak is not science, but TIME! And that’s the one variable that the industry can actually do something about. The tragedy, in my mind, is that the industry keeps dragging its heels in this area, when, as you correctly point out, this is one area the industry can actually do something about it.

This is not in any way to dispute that added effort in the area of epidemiology isn’t warranted. The Center for Produce Safety would seem to me to be a logical place to start. And clearly, funding needs to be increased for university research. Those efforts needs to be transparent so that all parties involved can have a coordinated effort in this area.

But this important work should not take the place of, or take the focus off of, traceability. They are two entirely different approaches to address a singular concern, that being a wholesome and safe food supp

— Bruce Peterson
Bland Farms
Glennville, Georgia

One sharp-eyed professor caught an error which we fixed the same day online:

I found an obvious error in the text provided by the GeneKey chief. The genome size of Escherichia coli O157:H7 is 5.4 million base-pair (5,400 genes), not 5,000 base-pair as mentioned in the report.

Non-pathogenic E. coli has somewhat smaller genome size (4.6 million base pair)

— Ahmed Yousef
Professor of Food Microbiology
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio

The professor then went on to send us a study he and colleagues published back in 2009 that he believes “could have prevented this tragedy.” It is called Inactivation of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Natural Microbiota on Spinach Leaves Using Gaseous Ozone during Vacuum Cooling and Simulated Transportation.

Still others focused on the differences between the US food safety system and that in Europe:

A good piece covering many topics. With the plethora of both factual and speculative articles flying around, it was interesting to see what the Pundit take on all this would be.

I think you are spot on in your sixth paragraph about how the countries reacted. Despite all the EU efforts to harmonize, these (Germany and Spain) are separate countries and in the EU the member countries have less ‘glue’ binding them together than the States of the United States. Press releases from the EU, affected countries and then local releases within the countries themselves seem to be a less than unified messages about the issues at hand.

One BBC commentator stated that ‘there is also a German belief in direct and open speech — if the authorities know something they believe the citizens should be told.’ I am not sure if that is fair comment or not, but how much information should a government make known to its people and when? How does any level of government (or industry) measure the need to protect its citizens with full disclosure versus the need for economic stability? Does partial disclosure cause more or less damage than full disclosure?

Even with clearer communications for example, X% probability of item A, Y% probability of item B, the economic damage to the named items will be done. This goes back to your points about the need for better epidemiology and better crisis management as you note in your piece.

I think epidemiology and traceability works hand in hand in terms of getting to the source of an issue as soon as possible and confirming we have the right source. The ideal situation being that the full disclosure as soon as the correct facts are confirmed will alert the consumers but avoid unnecessary economic hardship. I fear a lot easier write down than to actually put into place.

Pulsenet went global, and on their site, they mention, “PN Europe is currently in the process of being taken over by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Stockholm, Sweden. Ongoing activities and the central databases will probably be transferred to ECDC to Stockholm during 2008.”

When I look on the ECDC site, I am struggling to see a mention about Pulsenet, but a lot of information on their surveillance plans. Suspect this will be up for review after this current issue has played out, plus also maybe they will be looking at how member countries are required to inform consumers about issues (if countries can agree to surrender than level of control to the EU!).

You touched on irradiation, it does sound good but I read an article a few weeks back that made me realize this is a more difficult technology to apply to produce that I had first imagined. Of course, labeling of irradiated products is a different debate.

Looking forward to your next Pundit edition as this issue progresses.

— Mark Shakespeare
Field Representative

Santa Maria, California 

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