Consequences of Europe's E. Coli Outbreak
An E. coli outbreak in Europe has caused at least 22 deaths. Nearly 2,000 people have been sickened. Health officials are still searching for the source of the bacterium. They now believe it originated in Northern Germany. It has spread to 11 other countries, including, possibly, the United States. Most of the cases outside of Germany have been contracted by recent travelers to that nation. Germany's health minister warned against eating raw bean sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. European farmers and grocers have suffered economically. An update on food safety at home and abroad.
reporter, The Wall Street Journal, based in Frankfurt, Germany.
science reporter for The New York Times and author of the mystery novel "Hazard."
author of "Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."
professor, Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture and Environment; senior research fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute.
E. Coli Abroad and at Home
The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans are sickened every year by food-borne diseases, and recent outbreaks related to eggs, peanut butter, and spinach have demonstrated that there are more foods involved than just undercooked meats. A new food safety law was passed in December 2010, but Congress failed to provide funding to enforce it.
This month's outbreak of a particularly virulent and serious strain of E. Coli in Germany has raised new questions about food safety regulations abroad and at home.
Germany-based Wall Street Journal reporter Laura Stevens said the outbreak in that country has been a "big deal." "Almost everybody I know have stopped eating raw fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce and, now, bean sprouts as advised by the German Health Ministry," she said. German farmers are losing an estimated 30 million Euros per week, she said.
Serious E. Coli Strain
The particular strain of E. coli involved in the German outbreak is especially serious because it produces what is called a Shiga toxin and it has what New York Times science reporter Gardiner Harris refers to as a "stickiness" in the gut. "Then, in your gut, they produce the poison that then gets absorbed into your bloodstream. The E. coli doesn't go into your bloodstream, but the poison does," Harris said.
Once the poison gets into the bloodstream, it attacks the body's small capillaries, which are most concentrated within the kidney - and that has lead to hundreds of infected patients needing dialysis treatments. Most people can probably recover, Harris said, but some have already died in the German outbreak.
Economic Impact of Outbreaks can be Devastating
"People are very averse to risks they can't control," said David Orden, a professor at Virginia Tech's Institute for Society, Culture and Environment. "You can drive too fast and get a speeding ticket. You make that choice...when we get a scare like this, as you've seen in Europe, the demand for the product that's creating that scare just drops off tremendously," he said.
"What happens in these cases is that the industry gets killed," Harris said. "So what the industry really wants right now is a very strong FDA, and they're actually willing to tax themselves to pay for it," he said.