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Europe’s Deadly E. Coli Outbreak a ‘Wake-Up Call’ Over Global Food Distribution

June 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new strain of E. coli is sickening hundreds throughout Europe and leaving health officials baffled. Ray Suarez discusses the outbreak's global impact with attorney Bill Marler, who has worked on foodborne illness cases, and Cornell University food science professor Robert Gravani.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more, we turn to Bill Marler, an attorney who has worked on foodborne illness cases, including the E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993. He joins us from Seattle. And Robert Gravani, professor of food science at Cornell University, he joins us from Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.

Well, Bill Marler, we’re now pushing 2,000 people sick or dead. Why is it so hard to figure out where the E. coli bacterium comes from in a case like this?

WILLIAM MARLER, Marler Clark: Well, primarily — and I think the fact that you have got German officials pointing to cucumbers, salad, lettuce, tomatoes, it is difficult sometimes to parse out exactly what people have eaten.

You have got 1,500, 1,600 people sick. Eventually, they will be able to figure out what the common denominator is. But I fear that what the common denominator might be is a product like a salad that has multiple items. So, then it becomes very difficult to pinpoint a particular item, which then makes it difficult to do the trace-back to a farm, trace back to a manufacturing center that might be where the bacteria entered the system.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, where in the chain, from the farm to the dinner table, does the E. coli bacterium enter with food and with human beings? How does it get in somewhere?

ROBERT GRAVANI, Cornell University: (AUDIO GAP) … issues and the water proximity to animal operations.

We certainly are concerned about worker health and hygiene. We’re certainly concerned about the importance of properly composted manure that might be used on crops. And, clearly, we’re also concerned about wild animals that may enter the fields, despite some of the mitigation strategies that some of our farmers use.

We have to remember that this is a very complex problem. And, as Bill said, it’s very difficult to trace back, because, number one, the product is extremely perishable. There may be compound products involved, as in multiple-ingredient salads, et cetera. Also, the investigators need to interview the folks who became ill to try to find out what their food histories were, and then link that all together to identify a common source and then trace it back.

And, certainly, trace-back is a real issue these days that we’re making better strides in, but it’s clearly very difficult because of the packing and repacking and distribution systems with our produce.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, is the detective work that you were just talking about made harder by the fact that now it’s much harder to figure out where your food came from? When you walk into a produce section in a developed country, it’s vast and has many, many sources for food, doesn’t it?

ROBERT GRAVANI: Yes, it does. I think we live in an international food system, a global food system. We source ingredients and products from around the world.

And, clearly, consumers enjoy that diversity of products in their diets. But they also appreciate no seasonality to products like produce. You can remember back maybe 20 or 30 or 40 years ago when specific produce items were in season for a short period of time, and then you couldn’t get them in your homes. Well, now that has changed because we can source these products from different parts of the world.

I think the important piece here is that we need to be sure that the standards that are used to produce foods internationally, as well as domestically, are the same, and that we are using good agricultural practices to prevent these human pathogens from getting onto or into our produce items, so we can continue to offer consumers a wide variety of healthy products.

And we want them to consume more produce, so clearly, prevention strategies here are extremely important, as farmers and growers think about these issues and move forward, and again try to assure the safety of the products that they produce.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Bill Marler, have those systems the professor has just been talking about kept up with the pace of food moving around the globe?

WILLIAM MARLER: Well, in part, yes.

I mean, the international regulatory bodies have been working very hard at trying to get, you know, trace-back measures, standards set within countries. But, you know, as you can see from sort of the battle that is going on in Europe, as — pointing fingers at each other, cutting off, you know, products being imported, it is not an easy thing to get a lot of diverse people to work together on a common goal.

In the United States, we are still having problems, you know, both in meat and in produce. And, frankly, we’re not prepared for the type of bacteria that has been found in Germany. It certainly can happen in the U.S. We have three ill people who have traveled to Germany, but this outbreak is as likely to happen in the United States as it is any other country.

And so, I completely agree with the professor that, you know, more needs to be done, a more coordinated effort, both in food safety, but also, more importantly, in surveillance of illnesses, so we catch these outbreaks sooner, and we can be much more accurate in figuring out what the likely contamination vector is, you know, is it really, you know, cucumbers, is it really tomatoes, because the one thing that we don’t want to happen is to have the public and have business not trust our governmental officials, who have to make incredibly difficult decisions, balancing public health with, in a sense, having a business loss.

And those are difficult decisions. The Germans made a decision. It’s now found not to be quite the case. And now we’re still going to, you know, stumble through this.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, do you agree with Bill Marler that it could just as likely happen here, an outbreak similar to this one, with this kind of virulence?

ROBERT GRAVANI: I think that the secretary of agriculture earlier today made a comment that there is no immediate threat about the situation in Europe.

But, clearly, these organisms mutate. We transport them from place to place. We transport them around the world. The likelihood that it can happen here, yes, it can. I think it’s, right now, a bit more remote than what’s going on in Europe.

But I think the important piece that we need to remember is this is a wakeup call. If this new strain is out there, a relatively new strain or unusual strain, we should really take this as a wakeup call and begin to crank up our research, our mitigation strategies. And, clearly, some of the procedures that we have in place on farm to prevent contamination with one of the cousins of this outbreak strain that is occurring in Europe would prevent that from happening here as well.

So, we need to really make sure that our farmers and growers — and many of them are implementing farm food safety plans and being much more vigilant about some of the issues we talked about earlier to prevent these organisms from attaching onto or into our produce and making sure that we can, again, continue to assure safe food supply to consumers around the United States and around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Bill Marler, very quickly, before we go, any signs that the food industry is taking this seriously enough, so closing the loops, closing the possible vectors for this kind of infection?

WILLIAM MARLER: I think, as it relates to the bugs that we’re more aware of here in the United States, salmonella, campylobacter, or the E. coli that caused the Jack in the Box or the spinach outbreak, but one of the things we’re not paying attention to are what are known as the non-O157s.

The type of bug that we have just seen in Europe that is devastating Europe, that is what we are not paying attention to, and that’s what we need to pay attention to.

RAY SUAREZ: Bill Marler and Professor Gravani, gentlemen, thank you both.

WILLIAM MARLER: Thank you very much.

ROBERT GRAVANI: Thank you very much, Ray. I appreciated being on tonight.