Friday, June 17, 2011

Colonel Mustard, in the Dining Room, with the Sprouts

The last couple of weeks have been like the old game of Cluedo, with everyone running round accusing various participant of foul play and trying to find the culprit.  It would be amusing if it were not so deadly serious.

It now appears that the outbreak of Escherichia coli O104:H4 in Germany, which has now reached 16 countries, was probably caused by fresh vegetable sprouts grown in a farm in Uelzen, near Hamburg.  Unfortunately,  cucumbers from Spain, lettuces and tomatoes also had the finger pointed almost indiscriminately at them.  That caused huge financial losses for the suppliers and had knock-on effects on vegetable sales throughout Europe.  In some ways, I can sympathise with the authorities and the media.  This is one of the largest and most serious outbreaks of food poisoning ever and finding the source as quickly as possibly was imperative.

At the time of writing, there have been 3517 cases of EHEC infection, resulting in an unprecedented 839 cases of Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome and 39 deaths.  The rate of new case reporting has slowed, but it is likely that more people will become ill before this is all over.

This shows just how difficult it is to pinpoint the source of an outbreak of food poisoning in our highly integrated and widespread food supply chain.  The sprout farm purchased seeds for sprouting from both European and Asian countries.  The seeds were sprouted, using what seems to be standard and well designed conditions, and the 18 different sprout mixtures were sent to many different points in Germany.

The German authorities have been accused of being in disarray and having no proper response prepared.  There may be some truth in this - if the responsibility for food safety is spread across many local authorities and agencies, setting up a coordinated and timely response is fraught with difficulty.  But it is generally recognised that epidemiological investigations may have a success rate as low as 33% in tracking down the source of infections and the chance of success falls as time goes on.

At times like this, we often hear calls for increased testing of products before they are released onto the market.  Good try, but no cigar!  For a number of reasons, microbiological testing to assure safety of food is just not possible.  Testing is expensive and time consuming.  In some cases, the testing period exceeds the shelf life of the product.  A simple statistical calculation shows that when contamination levels are low, the number of samples that must be tested to get even a 95% chance of detection is prohibitively large and even then, 5% of contaminated samples will be accepted as safe.  Testing for E. coli O157:H7 would not have picked up the German strain and even proposed widened testing for "The Big Six" Entero-Haemorrhagic E. coli strains would have missed this one.

Regulators must be strong in the coming months.  Microbiological testing gives only a retrospective view and a poor one at that.  Imposing increased mandatory testing will not assure the safety of foods.

The only way we can ensure the safety of our food supply is to introduce controlled lethal steps in processing, such as heating or irradiation, or to put in place rigorous control of every potentially hazardous ingredient, process step, processing facility and distribution chain.  This is particularly important with high risk products such as sprouts.  What every food producer and distributor needs is a Hazard Analysis based Food Safety Programme of Risk Management.

1 comment:

John said...

To "Quicksilver"
Thank you for your comment. I don't want to appear to be stifling discussion, but your comment had nothing to do with this post.

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