Sunday, June 5, 2011


In the wake of the deadly deadly Escherichia coli ( E.Coli) outbreak that's swept Europe in recent days, a logical question that worries food safety experts is whether such episodes can happen elsewhere in the world. The issue is too complex to get a ready answer since E.coli, considered for long as an innocuous bug has metamorphosed into a monster group of microorganisms capable of causing death amongst humans. It was known for quite some time that a virulent strain of E.coli can cause food poisoning and it was identified as E.coli 0157:H7 which can damage the kidney if infected, though early treatment can abate the symptoms. Almost a decade of tireless work by microbiologists resulted in evolving reliable techniques to identify and assay them, giving considerable confidence to safety monitoring agencies to nip such poisoning with reasonable degree of accuracy. In some countries mandatory testing of foods for 0157:H7 is in place to prevent large scale food poisoning. In spite of all these efforts, more than 60000 people per year are affected by food poisoning episodes in the US alone due to infection from this bacteria.

There are also several other virulent strains isolated from soil but very little is known about most of these dangerous versions and practically no reliable assay method has been evolved that can be applied in the field. Thus there are gaps in the food safety systems of most of the countries as it is not feasible to test for new illnesses emerging caused by various strains of pathogenic E.coli. It is true that most safety agencies are focusing on a single strain, 0157:H7 considered most dangerous, ignoring other strains which also caused occasional food poisoning episodes to a limited extent. Now that the culprit in the EU food contamination case has been tentatively identified as E.coli 0104:H4, world has to sit and take note of the potential for damage by this strain. Probably the EU incidence may be a wake-up call for agencies like WHO to channel more resources to tackle this menace.

Why should this bacteria infect such products like tomato, cucumber, aubergine or lettuce which after all are not energy dense products giving sustenance to them? Could it be that they are just carriers becoming active only when suitable environment is available? How do they survive the rigorous processing steps which include washing and disinfection practiced by the industry most of them following the HACCP practices? Do they possess extra-ordinary capacity to with stand the scientifically sound disinfection processes followed by the industry? How come they possess the ability to resist antibiotics used for treatment of affected consumers? What precaution consumers can take to avoid ingesting such deadly foods? These are all disturbing questions that need to be probed without any delay.

Some of the clues available are helpful in understanding the problem and these must be kept in mind while evolving preventive action to avoid such contamination taking place at the grower's end and at industry level. E.coli is a bacteria associated with feces and they live in the guts of most mammals including human beings. Unless the affected product was exposed to an environment containing these bacteria in adequate numbers, it is unlikely that they would be contaminated. It would be advisable for fresh produce industry to ensure that at least a distance of 5 ft is kept between areas containing E.coli sources and the produce materials. The reported fact that those affected by the food poisoning are not responding to antibiotics Penicillin and Streptomycin points out to the possibility of raw meat as a source of contamination because the meat industry uses antibiotics in heavy doses in the feed tending to cause resistance of many pathogens to these antibiotics.

Now that the large outbreak in EU has been more or less traced to the emerging super-strain O104:H4 which is reported to have sickened at least 1,600 people and killed 18, intensive efforts are on to trace the source of contamination so that such future incidences can be avoided. The sacrifices by those unfortunate people felled by this pathogenic bacteria should not go in vain and the mankind owes to them for preventing such tragedy in future.


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