If you’ve been following the E. coli outbreak in Europe, you likely know that the death toll is up to 25 in Germany, plus one in Sweden, and 2,648 people have fallen ill, 689 of them with a potentially deadly complication that causes kidney failure and neurological damage. That’s according to today’s New York Times.
While E. coli is prevalent in the U.S., with many stories of meat contamination as well as produce over the last several years, you don’t often hear about deadly outbreaks in Europe. Now we’re on the verge of one of the world’s most lethal infections.
The story has been confusing. The Times notes that, “initially, the German authorities blamed cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce from Spain for the infection, which has been spreading since May 1. Then, last weekend, investigators switched their attention to sprouts grown in northern Germany as a potential cause.”
Then the quest for the source took a turn when “authorities in Magdeburg, in eastern Germany — far from the original epicenter of the infection in northern Germany — said traces of the pathogen identified in the outbreak had been found on discarded cucumber leftovers in a garbage can belonging to a family among those sickened by E. coli.”
There is currently disagreement between the federal Health Ministry and the Robert Koch Institute (the country’s disease control agency) over the status of the outbreak. “There is a declining trend in new cases but it is not clear that it is because the outbreak is really waning or whether it is because the population are being more careful in what they eat,” the Robert Koch Institute said in a statement.
Demand has decreased because authorities have warned consumers to avoid eating cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and sprouts, causing the German Association for Fruit and Vegetable producers to lose the equivalent of $7 million a day because of the crisis.
At the core of the issue is our global food system. While authorities in the U.S. aren’t worried about contamination from Europe, the FDA has stepped up testing of those foods imported from affected countries as a precaution, although very little is imported.
The World Health Organization says that “every year there are EHEC (E. coli O104:H4) outbreaks in different parts of the world including Europe, sometimes involving HUS [kidney damage] and even deaths, but the number of affected people is very much lower than what Germany is now experiencing…This particular strain, a rare serotype of EHEC , is severe.”
Indeed. The risk of contamination seems to be a by-product of a global food system that is constantly pushing to feed more and more people as efficiently as possible.