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Post  justmecookin on Sun Oct 03, 2010 10:23 am

E. coli outbreak sends ominous call for food-safety action

The video showing massive front-end loaders scooping up and piling mountains of toxic vegetables in Germany tells two stories at the same time.

One is the story of the deadly E. coli bacterial outbreak that started there May 2. As of Wednesday, the outbreak of a "super-bacterial" strain of Escherichia coli had killed 25 people and sickened more than 2,700 others. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says the outbreak is waning, but that is no reason to think the numbers won't increase before the danger passes.

In fact, the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's disease-control agency, warned consumers again not to eat cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes and other salad ingredients such as vegetable sprouts. At the same time, Health Minister Daniel Bahr said the cause of the outbreak may never be determined.

The other story told by the video image of the heavy-duty vegetable-piling loaders is this:

If similarly overwhelming action was initiated on the front end of the food-safety process, such outbreaks of E. coli and other fast-spreading contaminants would be far less frequent than they are today.

Germany's highly regulated but decentralized food-inspection apparatus already has taken legitimate criticism for being inefficient and out of sync.

Similar criticism can be levied against the system used in the United States. The problems are well-known -- some stemming from inter-agency conflicts, some from the nation's anemic policies regarding imports, and some from an over-reliance on private industry to police itself.

A prime example of the Keystone Cops syndrome is this: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration controls fresh eggs while the U.S. Department of Agriculture controls chickens, egg grading and liquid eggs used in industrial food production.

You would be right to ask, why?

Efforts are under way to improve parts of the safety net without needlessly entangling safety-compliant producers. Still, common-sense consumers are left scratching their heads and wondering about a number of things:

Why is Congress preparing to reduce funding for food-safety efforts?

Why can't the U.S. Food and Drug Administration force recalls?

Why do we settle for a system that takes the decisions out of the laboratory and away from the scientists and hands the authority to judges who become the de facto food police?

Let's get away from the deadly business of shoveling out after the fact.

Let's fix the problems on the front end of this nation's food-safety system and commit to making continuous improvements to ensure consumers are confident "from farm to fork."


Last edited by justmecookin on Thu Jun 09, 2011 9:42 am; edited 1 time in total

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Scattered Health Model Draws Fire for Germany’s Response to E. Coli Threat

Post  justmecookin on Thu Jun 09, 2011 9:15 am

Scattered Health Model Draws Fire for Germany’s Response to E. Coli Threat

German states’ broad powers over health and safety may have slowed response to the E. coli outbreak, with no single federal agency responsible for tracking the bug and assigning the blame.

German officials have struggled to pinpoint the source of the infection as the number of deaths rose to 25 in three weeks, and were criticized for delays as well as targeting Spanish cucumbers and organic sprouts not yet proven to be the culprits. At least 2,743 people have been stricken since May 2, with most of the cases in or tied to northern Germany, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said yesterday.

The decentralized system may have compounded a lack of leadership, Baerbel Hoehn, a Green Party member and environment minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state, told the N24 television channel yesterday. Each of the 16 states is responsible for tracking cases inside their borders. Federal authorities give advice to the states and to consumers.

“Clearly a more centralized structure is probably better suited to handle this,” Joerg F. Debatin, the medical director of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, the biggest hospital in the area affected worst by the disease, said in an interview yesterday. “But that really goes down to the roots of what the German political system is made up of.”

German states run their own police forces and education and health systems. The federal powers led to conflicts in recent years on issues from drives to introduce smoking bans to efforts to harmonize admissions procedures for universities.

Imposed after World War II, the system was modeled on the U.S. federal structure in part as a bulwark against centralized political power like that of the Nazi regime.

Consumer Protection

In the case of the E. coli outbreak, decentralization means officials from each state only asked for help from the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease-control agency, after establishing that people were getting sick. Institute investigators make non-binding recommendations, which states usually follow, Ina Klaus, a Health Ministry spokeswoman, said in a phone interview yesterday.

Then another federal agency, the institute for risk assessment, tells consumers what they should do to protect themselves. That agency was split from the health ministry more than a decade ago, Klaus said.

There’s no reason to change the structure, Health Minister Daniel Bahr said at a news conference in Berlin yesterday. Instead, cooperation between the agencies is important, he said.

“In a choir there are many voices, and nevertheless there’s harmony,” Bahr said.
Conflicting Numbers

For those following the epidemic, harmony sometimes sounded like cacophony. State health and agricultural ministers called their own press conferences. Individual states sent out their own updates about the number of infections and deaths. Figures reported in local media, tallying the states’ numbers, were often higher than the Koch Institute’s total.

Authorities in the city-state of Hamburg initially blamed Spanish cucumbers. On June 5, officials from the state of Lower Saxony said sprouts from an organic farm in their region played a role in the outbreak. Tests from the sprout farm aren’t yet complete, though so far show no evidence of the bacteria.

Officials at the Berlin-based Koch institute declined to comment on whether health authorities may have acted more quickly under a more centralized system.

“We are well networked with the state health authorities, and it always depends on someone on location being watchful,” Susanne Glasmacher, a spokeswoman for the institute, said in an e-mail.

Aussie Approach

In Australia, where health is predominantly a state responsibility, nationwide networks facilitate the sharing of laboratory data and information on communicable diseases, said John Mackenzie, a Melbourne-based microbiologist who chaired the World Health Organization’s emergency pandemic flu committee and who advises governments on outbreaks.

“All the health departments meet on a regular basis and whenever there is a problem, it’s known about very rapidly,” Mackenzie said in a telephone interview today. “A committee that keeps all the health departments in constant contact at different levels is really very important, and this process certainly does that.”

Different Definitions

The strain of E. coli in this outbreak produces a toxin that attacks the kidneys and blood vessels and can lead to a potentially fatal complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

Different definitions for when patients got sick have made it more difficult to track the outbreak, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in an interview.

“That shows the difficulties in the federal system, where the states don’t want to collaborate with the center,” said David Heymann, chairman of the U.K.’s Health Protection Agency and a former WHO assistant director-general for health security and environment.

If infections have stopped and new cases are being reported only in patients who picked up the bug weeks ago, the threat may be diminishing, Heymann said in a telephone interview from London yesterday.

“It could be that you will never find the source and the epidemic is on the downstream,” he said.

Officials in Germany yesterday reiterated that people shouldn’t eat lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and salad ingredients such as vegetable sprouts. Lower Saxony still sees a connection between the outbreak and the sprout farm in the town of Bienenbuettel, state Agriculture Minister Gert Lindemann told N24 in an interview.

‘Justified Optimism’

“It’s not the time yet to sound the all-clear, but after the analysis of figures and data at the Robert Koch Institute there’s reason for justified optimism that the worst is behind us,” Bahr said.

Germany may review its response after the outbreak to determine what could be improved, though there’s no need to change the structure of the existing system, Stefan Gruettner, social minister of the state of Hesse and chairman of a meeting of health ministers from the 16 states, said in an interview.

“We don’t need centralism,” Gruettner said. “Everything went well.”

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A U.S. Response to the European E. coli Outbreak

Post  justmecookin on Thu Jun 09, 2011 9:17 am

A U.S. Response to the European E. coli Outbreak
by Barbara Kowalcyk | Jun 09, 2011

My daughter Megan and I picked an interesting week to travel to Europe. We're in the Netherlands where I'm doing research for my doctorate in environmental health. We were here in the fall of 2010 as well. Unlike last fall, however, we haven't been able to eat raw produce this trip. At one point or another, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes and sprouts have been implicated, but none has been confirmed yet as the source (and none may ever be). So, no salads for us or for our friends. In home kitchens and restaurants across Europe, vegetables are being cooked, in response to the tragic E. coli outbreak that has thus far claimed 24 lives and sickened over 2,000 people.

This outbreak is especially concerning given the high rate of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and the fact that so many victims are adult women. HUS in adults is uncommon -- children are at highest risk of developing this serious complication of foodborne illness. It suggests that this is a particular nasty strain of STEC (shiga-toxin producing E. coli). HUS is a horrible disease that is characterized by cascading organ failure and can result, as in my son's case, in death. Those who survive often suffer long-term health effects, including end-stage kidney failure, diabetes and neurological complications.

One of the most troubling aspects of the ongoing outbreak in Europe is that it involves a strain of E. coli that often flies under the radar in the United States. In recent years, public health officials and food safety advocates -- myself included -- have been increasingly concerned about this class of E. coli, which is often referred to as non-O157 STECs.

In fact, numbers released this week by the Centers for Disease Control show that the United States has about the same number of non-O157 STECs as O157:H7 STEC. This means that it is time to change the way we handle these deadly pathogens. In 1994, Mike Taylor declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant in meat and poultry products when he was Undersecretary of Food Safety at USDA. In recent years, USDA has repeatedly been asked to address this and declare the "Big Six" non-O157 STECs to be adulterants as well, but so far no action has been taken.

Worse, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently ruled that non-O157 STECs in beef products are not economically significant and delayed action on a proposal to declare them adulterants. I'm certain that Germany and Spain would disagree. Given the significant cost associated with STEC infection and its severe long-term health outcomes, these pathogens are clearly economically significant.

In Europe, the cost of this outbreak will likely run into the millions -- if not billions -- when you consider the impact on those sickened, the amount of public health resources used to track the illnesses and find the source, and the lost market share for the cucumber, lettuce, tomato and sprout industries. As this outbreak demonstrates once again, foodborne disease is economically significant -- especially in these hard economic times.

Every time I hear about one of these outbreaks, my heart breaks again for the families affected. I understand their pain and desperately wish that my efforts to improve food safety could have prevented these tragedies. While disheartened, I am all the more determined to prevent this from happening to others. I do not want those sickened to have suffered in vain. I hope their experiences will force the food industry and governments around the world to re-evaluate their food safety systems and move from the current reactive systems to a proactive one. Achieving that will take significant investments in food safety. With the current global economy, it may seem like we can't afford to do that right now, but the reality is that we can't afford not to.

Unfortunately, at a time when people around the globe are focusing on food safety, last week a key Congressional subcommittee proposed significant cuts to the FDA and USDA food safety budgets. If passed through Congress, these budget cuts will make it nearly impossible for FDA to implement the new, higher standards in the recently signed food safety bill or for USDA to take action on non-O157 STECs. The United States will be taking a giant step backwards.

It's always interesting to watch food safety events -- and U.S. politics in general -- unfold from Europe. Last fall, while I began my research project at the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, my family watched the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 and endured puzzled questions and disbelief that such solid legislation promoted such strife in the U.S. This time around there are more questions -- largely driven by reports that the United States feels that Europe is mishandling the outbreak investigation. I find this ironic since the U.S. doesn't really look for non-O157 STECs and we have had some highly publicized outbreaks that took months -- not weeks -- to solve.

Epidemiologic investigations are time-consuming and often lead public health officials down many different paths. Of course, the decentralized nature of Germany's public health system -- not unlike many U.S. states -- has not helped the situation. But, regardless of the errors that may have been made, I still think Europe -- especially Denmark and the Netherlands -- is ahead of the curve when it comes to food safety. The United States can learn from their experiences and should follow their lead. We can start by adequately funding food safety and declaring the "Big Six" non-O157 STECs adulterants.

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Gene Probe Yields E. coli Clue

Post  justmecookin on Thu Jun 09, 2011 9:42 am

Gene Probe Yields E. coli Clue

The culprit behind Europe's deadly Escherichia coli outbreak appears to be an evolved and extremely toxic version of a bug first identified in Münster, Germany, in 2001, according to genetic analyses done by two separate teams of scientists.

Identifying the bug's ancestor may help scientists identify the origin, spread and source of the disease. Such genetic comparisons could also help researchers explain the biological mechanism that makes the 2011 bacterium so virulent, while providing clues for future diagnostic tests or effective drugs.

Researchers said the quick genetic analysis will help unlock the mystery. "Everything we know so far indicates it is an evolved strain," said Alexander Mellmann of the University Hospital of Münster, who was involved in one of the genetic analyses. "If it was completely unknown, we'd struggle a lot more in our effort to fight it."

In addition to Dr. Mellmann's group, a separate team from BGI, formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute, and University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf compared the genetic material of the 2001 and 2011 strains. They found that seven genes crucial to both bugs' survival are identical, as are 12 virulence/fitness genes shared by both.

The 2001 strain caused fewer than five identified cases world-wide, and scientists never did identify its natural reservoir—where a new strain of the E. coli bug can originate, such as in cattle. But the genetic analysis showed that as the 2001 bug likely swapped genetic material with other bacterial strains, some big changes occurred.

Another 94 people have been infected with E.coli in Germany. That figure comes as European ministers meet in Luxembourg to hold emergency talks on the outbreak and how to deal with it. Video courtesy Sky News.

The 2011 version turns out to be resistant to eight classes of antibiotics, including penicillin, streptomycin and sulfonamide. The likely reason is that rapid evolution "resulted in the gain of more genes during the last 10 years" that conferred immunity against many more antibiotics, according to BGI.

Three more deaths from the bug were reported in Germany on Wednesday. So far, at least 26 people have died and more than 2,700 have been sickened by the outbreak in at least 13 different countries. Nearly all the cases can be traced back to Germany. Public health officials in Germany haven't yet succeeded in pinpointing the food source behind the outbreak; part of their investigation continues to focus on a bean sprout farm as a possible source of infection.

Regional authorities in Germany on Wednesday reported what could be a clue in the saga, saying they found the E. coli strain on some cucumber scraps in the town of Magdeburg, in Saxony-Anhalt, in north central Germany. This is the first time this strain has been isolated on a vegetable in Germany. Several members of a family fell ill on May 19, and one of them pointed to their eating cucumbers, according to reports.

Authorities searched the family's compost trash can and found the strain—though it is impossible to say how and when the bacteria were introduced to the waste, because it is two weeks old. Authorities can't rule out that the family may have been sickened and then transferred the bacteria to the cucumber scraps.

The discovery of the tainted cucumber scraps in Magdeburg is unlikely to be helpful in the search for a source, said Holger Paech, spokesman for the state of Saxony-Anhalt's health ministry. The family members were the only ones in Magdeburg who fell ill, and all other clues in searching for the source of their sickness have resulted in dead ends, Mr. Paech said.

The family had no connections to Hamburg or other areas which experienced more severe outbreaks. Authorities tested surface areas inside the family's kitchen, as well as samples from supermarkets where they shopped—all with no other positive identifications of the strain.

While the father in the family was only slightly ill, the mother and daughter were hospitalized. The mother has been released, but the daughter, a young adult, has complications and is still in the hospital. The state of Saxony-Anhalt has only reported 28 cases of E. coli infections in this outbreak, according to the Robert Koch Institute, which is funded by Germany's Federal Ministry of Health.

Saxony-Anhalt officials passed along the information and samples to the federal government. They will test it to see if the 0104 strain found on the cucumber waste is an exact match to the 0104 strain found in humans.

"We have no information for people—this really leaves us with more question marks than answers," added Mr. Paech.

Hamburg health authorities originally said the E. coli outbreak stemmed from a shipment of Spanish cucumbers, but later determined those were infected with a different strain of the bacteria. Authorities still don't know where the cucumber scraps in the sickened family's trash originated, and the Robert Koch Institute, has continued to point to cucumbers as one of the potential sources of the outbreak, along with tomatoes and lettuce.

The twin sets of genetic analysis of the 2011 bug were conducted at unprecedented speed thanks to a new kind of gene-sequencing machine used by both teams.

Most DNA sequencers use light beams to read the code of an organism's genome, and the process can take a week to complete. A newer machine, known as an ion torrent, does the job more quickly. For example, it took three days to complete the process of sequencing the 5.4 million letters of the latest bug's genetic code.

"It's a semiconductor device that senses chemistry, so it can directly read off the DNA," said Jonathan Rotheberg of Life Technologies Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif., which sells the ion torrent device.

The way that the genetic data of the 2011 E. coli strain were disseminated globally suggests a more effective approach for tackling public health problems. Both groups put their sequencing data on the Internet, so scientists the world over could immediately begin their own analysis of the bug's makeup. BGI scientists also are using Twitter to communicate their latest findings.

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Tons of fresh produce trashed in Germany

Post  justmecookin on Thu Jun 09, 2011 9:47 am

Tons of fresh produce trashed in Germany

Werder, Germany (CNN) -- Fruit and vegetable company Werder Frucht has to bring in additional workers these days or risk falling behind. But the workers are not busy selling the company's tomatoes: they are busy throwing red, ripe produce in the trash.

Workers empty crate after crate of vine-ripened vegetables into a giant garbage container on the company's premises in Werder near Berlin.

For the past four weeks -- since an E. coli scare caused European consumers to all but abandon eating raw vegetables -- demand in tomatoes has plummeted, says Petra Lack, Werder Frucht sales manager.

"At the beginning the demand dropped to about 10% of what we would normally sell, then it went to about 5%," Lack says. "Now the demand has stabilized at about 25% of the normal amount of tomatoes we would be selling."

Lack says a health warning from the German government urging people not to eat raw lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers has caused consumers to shy away from almost all vegetables.

"Things are awful at the moment," Lack says standing next to the giant garbage container full of tomatoes. "We hope this won't continue for the whole harvest season. But if the government keeps telling people not to eat lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers nothing will change."

This week Werder Frucht will destroy about 270 tons of tomatoes. The cost of the purge will be measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars, company officials say. The company is keeping track of all the tomatoes it must destroy with plans to file damage claims against the European Union to recoup some of the losses.

"It is a real shame," says Lack, "but we simply cannot sell these tomatoes. The consumers just aren't buying."

Werder Frucht criticizes the government for its handling of the outbreak of a deadly strain of E. coli in northern Germany. The outbreak has killed nearly two dozen people and will leave many others with lifelong impairments like kidney failure.

German authorities first issued a blanket warning for consumers to avoid eating raw lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Then authorities in Hamburg implied that Spanish cucumbers might be the origin of the E. coli stain, a claim later disproved. Now health officials are investigating a company in northern Germany that sells various types of sprouts, but so far lab samples have shown no traces of bacterial infection.

The number of new cases of infection has been falling significantly, German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said Wednesday.

Spain has threatened to sue Germany for compensation as its farmers say their losses are rising to hundreds of millions of euros. The German agricultural association says so far farmers in Germany have lost about €50 million euros ($73.4 million) in revenue since the outbreak.

On Tuesday the EU said it would pay €150 million ($220 million) to farmers in Europe and that amount is expected to rise in the coming days as some countries have hinted more is needed to cover the damages to their farming sectors.

But farming is also about pride and Andre Becker, who heads the tomato production in a greenhouse complex on the outskirts of Berlin, says he would rather see his produce on dinner tables than be compensated for tossing vegetables in the trash.

"We produce according to strict standards," Becker says as he is cutting ripe tomatoes off a vine. "We constantly monitor the water and the nutrients we give the plants and we have tested for E. coli -- all tests have been negative."

With a lot of sunny days, 2011 was promising to be a good year for tomatoes. The vegetables grow quickly and are firm, juicy and of a healthy red color. Becker says that makes it even more painful to throw so much of the crop away.

"Right now we have so much to do just harvesting to the tomatoes that we don't really talk much about the situation," he says. "But it really is a shame."

The workers at the greenhouse have to keep harvesting the tomatoes or risk destroying the plants. Normally the produce would wind up in grocery stores within a day. Now the vast majority wind up in an air conditioned warehouse and then in a garbage container.

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