What really caused the deadly E. coli outbreak?

| 3rd June 2011
We may never know, argues Eve Mitchell, because the nature of our complex and highly industrial food systems is making it far harder to determine what happened

While we are all, quite rightly, taking precautions with our food while the authorities look for the source of the current E.coli outbreak centred in Germany, we also need to take care not to confuse symptoms with cause.

Since scientific investigation ruled out the initial assertions that Spanish cucumbers were the source of the outbreak, the pall of suspicion has switched to raw fruit and vegetables more generally, with the Russians halting European imports and advice offered to wash all produce carefully. However it is important to remember there is as yet no evidence to indicate that fresh produce, or even food, is in fact the source of the problem.

So while there is much we don’t yet know, one thing is clear: the nature of our industrialised food system is making it far harder to determine what happened.

Produce supply chains connecting farmers to consumers, and increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few multinational companies, have lengthened and now may stretch around the world, mixing a large volume of products of many farms together, shipping them over long distances and using new technologies to extend shelf life. Each stage brings new risks into our kitchens.

Larger volumes and longer supply chains, in turn, make trace-back much more difficult and put a larger number of consumers at risk if there is an incident of microbial contamination somewhere in the system.

The E. coli outbreak in Europe shows just how hard it can be to pinpoint where things go wrong in such a labyrinthine system. For example, while much more research is needed to gain a thorough understanding of the sources of microbial contamination in produce, scientific evidence finds that cattle, particularly those that are fed grain, are the most significant source of some strains of E. coli and that flies from cattle feedlots may serve as a major vector for E. coli contamination on leafy greens. The practice of feeding livestock antibiotics for growth promotion has increased the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens like E. coli, and with it, related food safety risks.

All this means that if food is the source of the current outbreak, it is extremely difficult to find both the source and all potential affected consumers. If it turns out that food is not the source, the fact that the complexity of our industrial food system lead us to assume food was to blame means precious time will have been wasted chasing a dead end while people continue to grow ill or die. Either way the manner in which we produce, package, ship, sell, buy and store our food needs a good hard look when the immediate dangers are addressed.

The solutions are not difficult. While it is true that small and diversified farms are not risk-free, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the management practices common to smaller, biodiverse and conservation-oriented farmers are a net benefit to food safety.

Smaller, regional food systems have many benefits, including to human health, and the solution is to create supply chains that make it easier to identify where food production and distribution problems occur – or don’t as the case may be.

Eve Mitchell is EU Food Policy Advisor for Food and Water Europe

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