We have all played the game called passing the ball. Germany seems to be playing this game, except it’s the blame. For the past one month Germany has single-handedly destroyed vegetable farmers all over the world and it is on the way to wreck its own economy.
First they blamed the infamous Spanish cucumbers. Then they cast suspicion on sprouts from Germany. Now German officials appear dumbfounded as to the source of the deadliest E. coli outbreak in modern history, and one U.S. expert called the investigation a “disaster.”
Backtracking for the second time in a week, officials Monday said preliminary tests have found no evidence that vegetable sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany were to blame.
“This investigation has been a disaster,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The Associated Press. “This kind of wishy-washy response is incompetent,” he said, accusing German authorities of casting suspicion on cucumbers and sprouts without firm data.
The European Union’s health Commissioner defended German investigators, saying they were under extreme pressure as the crisis unfolded. And they could not rule out any possibility.
Ruled out possibilities:
In outbreaks, it is not unusual for certain foods to be suspected at first, then ruled out.
In 2008 in the U.S., raw tomatoes were initially implicated in a nationwide salmonella outbreak. Consumers shunned tomatoes, costing the tomato industry millions. Weeks later, jalapeno peppers grown in Mexico were determined to be the cause.
In 2006, lab tests mistakenly pointed to green onions in an E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell restaurants. U.S. Investigators considered cheddar cheese and ground beef as the source before settling on lettuce.
With the culprit in the European crisis still a mystery, authorities stopped short of giving sprouts a clean bill of health. German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner reiterated the warning against eating sprouts, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, which have also come under suspicion.
More than a dozen samples from the farm, near Uelzen, are still being checked, and the cause of the month-old epidemic remains unknown, according to health officials in Hamburg, which the European Union said is the epicenter of illnesses. Seventeen cases were tied to a restaurant in Luebeck, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) away, which received supplies from Hamburg.
Initial tests from an organic farm in northern Germany showed no evidence of the bacteria that killed 22 people, authorities in Lower Saxony state said yesterday. Traces may be undetectable now if the offending produce was grown from a depleted batch of contaminated seed weeks ago, said James Paton, head of the bacterial pathogenesis laboratory at the University of Adelaide in southern Australia.
They are still pretty strongly suspicious of the sprouts because the epidemiological link was strong, Paton said in an interview to Bloomberg. It’s just that they haven’t found it at the farm. Andreas Hensel, head of Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, warned, “We have to be clear on this: Maybe we won’t be able anymore to identify the source.”
However, the negative test results do not mean that previous sprout batches weren’t contaminated.” Contaminated food could have been completely processed and sold by now,” ministry spokeswoman Natascha Manski said. In that case, the number of people stricken might keep rising for at least another week as the produce that could be causing the infections may have already been delivered to restaurants and grocery stores.
At an EU health ministers meeting Monday in Luxembourg, Germany defended itself against accusations it had acted prematurely in pointing to Spanish cucumbers. “The virus is so aggressive that we had to check every track,” said Health State Secretary Annette Widmann-Mauz.
The German O104 E. coli strain produces a toxin that attacks the kidneys and blood vessels. Since May 2, 661 people have developed the life-threatening complication in the EU, and an additional 1,673 people have been stricken with diarrhea, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said yesterday.
Most cases have occurred in adult women and those who recently traveled to the north of Germany — mainly Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, North-Rhine-Westphalia and Hamburg, the Stockholm-based agency said.
The epidemic has killed more people and resulted in more cases of severe kidney damage than any outbreak on record. About 9,451 people were sickened and 12 killed in a series of outbreaks in Japan between May and December 1996, according to a 1999 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The majority of those cases were acquired by tainted radish sprouts in school lunches.
Radish seeds experimentally infected with the germ produced contaminated sprouts, suggesting the original source may not be the farm supplying the produce, researchers in Tokyo reported in a 1998 study.
All of their water systems may be perfectly okay and their production methods may be fine, it’s just that they are starting off with contaminated seed stock, said Paton, who was among the first scientists to use DNA analysis to trace food-borne outbreaks in Australia in the early 1990s. If you just had a single-batch contamination, then the likelihood of there being any traces left over are remote.
Evidence in restaurants and households may also be hard to find as any offending sprouts would likely have perished in the weeks since cases were first reported, he said.
It’s possible the source of the German outbreak may never be discovered, said Robert Hall, a senior research fellow at Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine in Melbourne, Australia.
Hard Times but simple procedures
It gets really tough at this stage, and I suspect they may not get it out, said Hall, who investigated numerous outbreaks of food-borne diseases as the former director of communicable disease control with the South Australian health department in Adelaide.
You have got to make a lot of fine judgments and you’ve got to do them in a tearing rush, and with the eyes of the world’s media glaring at you, Hall said in a telephone interview. It’s quite difficult to do. Most disease investigators use methods based on those described by Michael Gregg, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who edited the textbook Field Epidemiology in 1996, Hall said.
The process typically involves interviewing dozens of people who fell ill to screen for potential risk factors, including commonly consumed food and beverage items, he said. The same questions are then posed to about three times as many unaffected people, or controls, and the data compared in order to discern key differences.
That’s quite a difficult thing to do, especially if you’re doing it in a big rush, which you always are, Hall said. On the basis of the differences, you can get an epidemiological association, which if you’re lucky, you can then use to identify the food and test the food. And if you’re really lucky, it turns out positive as well. Once food targets have been identified, investigators will usually also look for possible contaminants in the environment, Hall said.
Part of the difficulty is that it might be quite widespread through all kinds of cross-contamination mechanisms, or it might just be a single producer, he said. If it’s a single producer, then that’s usually quite easy to control once you’ve found it. Then the court cases begin.
The contaminant is contained and the incidence of infection is falling daily, John Dalli, the EU health commissioner, said at a news conference in Luxembourg yesterday.
The EU will hold an emergency meeting of farm ministers Tuesday to address the crisis, including a ban imposed by Russia on all EU vegetable.
Work of Terrorists
This is a theory which the world is not willing to give up. Well in this case it is not Osama Bin Ladin or Al Qaeda, but a crazy person. Klaus-Dieter Zastrow, chief doctor for hygiene at Germany’s Vivantes Hospital in Berlin, was quoted, as saying: It is quite possible there’s a crazy person out there who thinks: I’ll kill a few people or make 10,000 ill.
German doctors say that it could be some rogue groups who would have deliberately implanted the killer germ into fresh produce. Some even go to the extent of saying that it could have been mixed in the food for the cattle and it could be from dairy products. Theories, mainly conspiracy theories are terrorizing the world now. This crisis can only come to a close if the e-coli reveals itself.
Oh E-coli! Who art thou? Reveal thy self for world preservation