Food safety – why science is better than rumour


The lack of any solid evidence to pinpoint the cause or spread of the E.coli outbreak that has killed 22 people and infected 1,700 people across Europe has not stopped speculation or, worse still, completely false accusations as to its cause or spread.

With no supporting evidence, the blame has been put on cucumbers from Spain, then salads and vegetables, with the geography then widening on a whim.

Consumers, quite reasonably, react according so sales of fresh fruit and vegetables slump. Spanish vegetable and salad growers, singled out falsely as the source, have been the most severely affected so the extent that the Spanish government wants its farmers to be compensated for losses of €200m a week as fresh vegetables are left to rot.

Spain’s prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, said the EU “should have reacted quicker and more vigorously” as soon as tests showed Spanish vegetables were not to blame. Quite how such incorrect information was allowed to spread is also deeply worrying.

But the misinformation continues with articles in mainstream media blaming the problem on “a broken food chain” that is the product of globalised food distribution and retailing delivering public health problems across national boundaries in hours.

The truth is that it appears not be to be the highly efficient food chain that caused or spread the E-coli outbreak. German health authorities say that locally grown beansprouts are the likely cause with the contamination due to poor hygiene either at a farm, or in transit, or in a shop or food outlet.

This is not dissimilar to the UK’s worst E coli outbreak that killed 21 people in Lanarkshire in 1996.The source was a small butcher’s shop where cross-contamination between raw and ready-to-eat meats occurred.

In the case of this current German outbreak, it is not the movement of food over long distances that triggered the rapid spread of this deadly E-coli bacterium, but the movement of people.