What Can the US Learn from Europe's E.coli Outbreak?



Pharma IQ
06/16/2011

As Europe continues to wrestle with the outbreak of E.coli, the United States questions if it is prepared for a similar event.

More than 25 lives have now been claimed from the latest outbreak of the disease, including one outside of Germany, while health protection agencies across the globe are reiterating their food safety warnings.

And although the authorities are claiming that the situation is very much under control, there are lessons to be learnt from the handling of the outbreak, which sparked so much criticism.

Germany originally pointed the finger at Spanish cucumbers being the source of the outbreak, an assertion which was later quashed.

The Robert Koch Institute has now announced it believes the E.coli originates from beansprouts grown near Hamburg, but the damage to the rest of the industry was already done.

Russia announced it was banning the import of all fruit and vegetables from the European Union, cutting off a market worth £530 million. It has since agreed to lift the ban, providing food safety can be guaranteed, but the European Union has now been placed in a position where it is required to offer support to vegetable growers.

Some €210 million (£186 million) are to be made available in an emergency budget measure, but European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Dacian Ciolo explained: "We are doing the maximum within the financial possibilities available to us and with the tools at our disposal today it is true that we are not sufficiently equipped to respond to this type of crisis."

German officials have also found themselves defending the speed at which they discovered the source of the outbreak, with some researchers still conceding that it may well never be found, despite the latest assurances that it came from beansprouts.
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EU health chief John Dalli defended the decision to issue health warnings, despite the negative impact they had on famers, claiming: "The advice and information reported to the public domain can stand up to rigorous scrutiny."

Dalli went on to recommend that Europe looks towards countries which have already faced such an outbreak for evidence of how to deal with it, including the United States and Japan and the researchers in China who were able to use DNA sequencing technology to identify the strain.

Advanced technology goes a long way in speeding up identifying the strain of bacteria being dealt with, but this is just the frontline in eventually combating the infection.

Speaking to Reuters, Paul Hunter, a professor of public health at the University of East Anglia, said that despite the advances which will allow them to narrow their focus, it is still a game of chance as to if environmental health officers can tackle the source of the outbreak.

What's more it's predicted such epidemics will become more common as a result of the global food trade and widespread travel, which create the conditions in which bacteria are able to thrive.

Thomas Tucker, director of the National Centre for biomedical research and training, said: "We are especially vulnerable here in the United States with our complex processing and distribution system and high volume of imported goods."

Much has been made of the Food and Drug Agencies Food Safety Modernisation Act since news of the new E.coli strain broke and its powers to create a new food safety oversight system in the country, which will place obligations on international producers.

The law focuses on preventative measures rather than response. But there are few suggesting the EU outbreak occurred as a result of weak food safety standards during production, it is rather the response which has come under fire.

This is where the US should be looking to learn its lessons in the coming weeks. Assessing how it can review its systems for identifying strains and the measures it has in place will allow it to protect public health, without too much damage to wider industries.