(UPDATED COVERAGE, June 3) A deadly E. coli outbreak in Europe from a rare form of the bacteria and possibly linked to contaminated vegetables is being closely followed by the U.S. fresh produce business.
But industry representatives downplayed concern over the prospect of a similar problem here, saying their products remain safe.
Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said he’s not aware of any domestic fruits or vegetables, grown in the U.S. or imported, that may be tainted with the rare strain.
The E. coli strain, known as STEC O104:H4, has never been reported in the U.S., according to federal food safety regulators.
While it’s impossible to guarantee 100% that fruits and vegetables are free of contamination from many types of bacteria, stricter food safety practices implemented over recent years have greatly reduced the risks, Stenzel said.
“We’re in as good a shape as we can be as an industry,” Stenzel said June 2.
More than 1,820 have been sickened and 18 have died through June 2, mostly in Germany, since the outbreak was discovered last month, according to the World Health Organization.
The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control and prevention agency, confirmed at least six of the deaths were from kidney failure, one of the complications from E. coli infection.
Initial reports linked the outbreak to cucumbers from Spain, but the source of the infections has not yet been identified. Another German agency, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, found no O104 E. coli in four Spanish cucumber samples, according to a June 1 statement.
Still, the institute advised against eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce http://bit.ly/mH3uRg — especially if the food was bought in northern Germany — as long as the infection source has not been identified.
E. coli can be found in the intestines of cattle, and U.S. outbreaks have typically involved ground beef tainted with the most commonly found strain, O157:H7. But E. coli has become a growing concern for the U.S. produce industry in recent years after outbreaks from contaminated lettuce and spinach.
Complicating matters for fresh produce growers and shippers, Stenzel said, is certain items being wrongly blamed for sickening people, costing producers business. In 2008, an E. coli outbreak was initially tied to tomatoes and consumers were told to stop eating them, even though illnesses were later traced to peppers from Mexico.
“In this country, we’ve had entire commodities get penalized,” Stenzel said.
In the tomato case, for example, “the whole market shuts down,” he said.
Western Growers Association is monitoring the Europe outbreak “with great interest and concern” for the industry and the public, said Hank Giclas, the group’s head of science, technology and strategic planning.
This outbreak appears more severe than recent E. coli-related illnesses linked to U.S. produce, Giclas said. But the reaction from Europe’s public health officials seems similar to their U.S. counterparts, where an authority has been quick to name “suspected” commodities only to have to retract those statements later, he said.
“It begs the question of how does that public health sector rapidly and definitively identify a potential vehicle” for E. coli illnesses, Giclas said in an e-mail. “We understand this is a complicated issue requiring great speed to protect the public. But if you name the wrong commodity, are you really protecting the public?”
While the U.S. imports many varieties of vegetables from Europe, the amounts are relatively small compared with other regions.
In 2010, the U.S. imported 585,000 metric tons of fresh cucumbers, with about 1,000 metric tons, or 0.2%, coming from the European Union, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
The E. coli in the Europe outbreak is a particularly dangerous strain about which relatively little is known, said Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. More research is needed to better understand where the strain originates and how it can contaminate food, he said.
“We don’t have it here yet that we know of,” Doyle said. “But that’s not to say it won’t get here.”