Foreign Policy Blogs

Confusion compounds Europe's E. Coli outbreak

Now that a recent outbreak of a deadly strain of E. Coli that hit Europe in late May has been contained by stepped up screening, governments and consumers are questioning how the outbreak of such a deadly bacteria emerged and how can future outbreaks be prevented.

First, what is known:

  1. At the time of this post, 19 people have died and over 2,000 have become ill from food contaminated in this outbreak of E. Coli.
  2. The site of the contamination has been pinpointed in northern Germany, where most of the victims live.   Other victims include citizens from 12 other countries, including the U.S., who have traveled through Germany recently.
  3. The E. Coli strain involved has caused some victims to contract hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which shuts down the kidneys.  Others have experienced enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), casuing “hemorrhaging in the intestines and can result in abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea.”
  4. According to MSNBC, only 0.2% of produce is imported by the U.S. from German.  Increased screening of shipments coming from Europe has safeguarded U.S. markets.

Initially, reports attributed the outbreak to produce from Spain, including lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers that found their way, in raw form, into salads.  Fears of contaminated farm products froze sales of Spanish produce, although it was later determined to not be the source.  The false information damaged Spanish farmers so much that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has sought EU financial assistance for Spanish farmers to make up for losses from the scare.

Dr. Paul Wigley of Liverpool University explains in the Guardian how tracking how the food was contaminated will not be an easy process.  “Eighty percent of food poisoning cases are usually traced to meat or poultry,” making it difficult to trace the actual source of the contamination.  “Salad products are grown and shipped across Europe.   Meat or poultry tend to have more localized markets.”

Another piece of misinformation came from reports that the E. Coli strain responsible for the outbreak was a mutant strain that was resistant to antibiotics.  These reports triggered fears of a “super bug” in the food system.  It has since been determined that the strain of E. Coli responsible for the outbreak, while rare, was not an unstoppable mutant strain.  In turn, calls to subject this strain of E. Coli to antibiotics is not a widely recommended response, as it may create resistance to antibiotics in future generations of the bacteria.

This video from MSNBC shows how victims in Hamburg are recovering from their infection:

Posted by Michael Lucivero.