Killer cucumbers and evil bean sprouts? Chill out

Yes, the E. coli outbreak in Germany is serious, but the panic-fuelled overreaction to it has ended up making things even worse.

An outbreak of E. coli poisoning in Germany, which began in early May, has made headline news around the world. At the time of writing, the World Health Organisation is reporting that the outbreak has made 2,335 people sick, all but one of them in Germany or in people who had visited Germany. There have been 691 cases of a life-threatening kidney condition – haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) – and 16 of these people have died. The other 1,674 cases of infection have led to six deaths. While there has been much speculation about the cause of the outbreak, the German authorities have yet to establish a definitive source.

This is not a trivial matter, of course – but we do need some perspective. And whenever a serious incident like this occurs, we must be careful about the conclusions we draw from it. These are the lessons we ought to be learning.

Lesson one: this is still a relatively small problem

Whenever a new disease appears, the uncertainty about what it is, where it comes from and how to deal with it can be very disruptive for a period of time. For fairly localised incidents, like the current one in northern Germany, it can place a major strain on medical services. But 22 deaths, while tragic for each and every family concerned, are not many in the grand scheme of things.

For example, according to EU statistics, in Germany in 2008 there were over 64,000 cases of the most common form of food poisoning, campylobacteriosis, and 876 cases of the kind of toxin-producing E. coli infection in the current outbreak (though the particular bacterium involved in the new outbreak seems to be completely new).

Overall, there are just under 900,000 deaths from all causes in Germany in each year. The number of deaths from E. coli pales in comparison with those from the wide range of causes that we are more familiar with, such as heart disease, strokes and cancer. The deaths related to E. coli attract headlines because they can be spun as the latest confirmation that we are all extremely vulnerable, that we are just one slice of misfortune away from disaster. To understand the E. coli scare, therefore, we need to be sensitive to the fact that we live in a society with a very high sensitivity to risk.

From the health scares around swine flu, SARS and obesity to panics about computer problems (the ‘millennium bug’), climate change and terrorism, ours is a world in which our alleged vulnerability to external threats is constantly talked up. With so many panics flying about, it is clear that the presentiment towards feeling ‘at-risk’ exists quite separately from any particular problem and tends to magnify the apparent importance of such problems.

Lesson two: speculation is dangerous

The most commonly suggested cause for the E. coli outbreak in Germany is the consumption of raw food - usually salad vegetables. But no specific cause has been identified as yet. An early suggestion from German officials was that the cause might be Spanish cucumbers: the effect was to devastate Spanish exports, with Spanish farmers claiming that the incident could cost them €200million per week in lost sales. Producers in other countries, such as the Netherlands, have also been hurt by these claims, as German consumers have steered clear of their salad vegetables too, while Russia has imposed a complete ban on vegetable imports from all 27 EU countries.

On Sunday, German officials claimed that the most likely source of the outbreak was a farm in Uelzen, south of Hamburg, which produces a variety of types of bean sprouts. Yet by Monday, officials announced that 23 of 40 samples taken from the farm had been negative for the particular bacterium involved. While bean sprouts have been involved in serious poisoning incidents in the past, killing 17 people in Japan in 1996, the general manager of the farm under suspicion, Klaus Verbeck, has protested that his crops could not have been to blame. ‘The salad sprouts are grown only from seeds and water, and they aren’t fertilised at all. There aren’t any animal fertilisers used in other areas on the farm either’, he told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper.

Nonetheless, the infection could have reached the farm via the seeds themselves. Even if all the samples tested came back negative, it would not necessarily mean that the farm was not the source of the outbreak.

While the outcry for some answers may be difficult to resist, the speculation has been costly and counterproductive. Finding a common source of infection, among the wide variety of foods that German consumers eat, will prove difficult, of course - but there is simply no shortcut to establishing the facts.

Lesson three: irradiation would have helped

Some of the major breakthroughs in food safety, like pasteurisation and canning, have come about through applying new technologies to destroying infection. The best, and most common, method of infection control is cooking. Properly cooked food is, with a few exceptions, completely safe to eat. However, that doesn’t help when the food in question is served raw.

Yet a method for dealing with this problem has been available for many years: irradiation. Giving food a short blast of gamma rays, electrons or x-rays is enough to kill off nearly all the bugs within it. This is not only an excellent protection against pathogens - it also enables food to stay fresh for longer. So irradiated strawberries stay fresh for weeks rather than days. While irradiation is not suitable for every foodstuff, and is best applied in conjunction with other food-hygiene measures, it would be a good solution for cucumbers, research suggests, and for bean sprouts.

Yet the EU as a whole only approves irradiation for one kind of food: spices. The technology is used in a number of member states, like the Netherlands and France, for a wider group of foods including poultry and frog’s legs. Which country blocked wider EU approval of irradiation? Germany.

Lesson four: our food system is not ‘broken’

Food production is now more efficient than ever before, providing consumers with cheaper, more durable produce at lower prices and with greater convenience. For example, where British consumers spent about 21 per cent of household income on food in 1970, they now spend around 10 per cent, while the range of foods on offer to the majority of the population is far wider than ever before.

Yet for many food commentators and campaigners, Big Food is a disaster waiting to happen. So it’s no surprise that some have leapt upon events in Germany to suggest that we need to retreat from industrialised food production. Last week, in the Daily Mail, food writer Joanna Blythman provided a litany of dangers lurking in our bagged salads, all based on ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’.

On Sunday, in the Observer, Blythman was even more sweeping in her condemnation of mass production, declaring that ‘by its very nature, our industrialised, globalised food system begets public health problems. It is geared to churning out vast volumes of food and raising productivity, but at the lowest cost. So farmers and growers are pushed to make savings by cutting corners and adopting intensive practices, which open up unprecedented risks that are graver all the time: everything from toxins from GM crops turning up in fetal blood, through sickly, cloned calves dying soon after birth, to the creation of more virulent superbugs.’ Blythman calls for a ‘radically different model of food and agriculture, one that is based on the largely untapped potential of small-scale, much more regional production and food distribution’.

Yet Blythman seems to contradict herself, noting that the UK’s worst E. coli outbreak - in 1996 in Scotland, with 21 deaths - originated in a small butcher’s shop. Small is not necessarily beautiful. As we develop larger-scale production and distribution methods, appropriate regulations should be in place to ensure good standards of hygiene, and dealing with reams of regulations is far easier for large producers who can employ specialist staff to ensure the implementation of such rules.

Food is both essential to our existence and a perennial source of illness. We can’t ever hope to eliminate food-borne illness completely, but we can and should learn lessons from incidents like the one in Germany so that we can improve food hygiene in the future. Overreaction, however, is not helpful - nor is the prejudice that large-scale food production is killing us.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK). Read his blog here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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