I had the privilege recently to spend a week in Germany, and, wouldn’t you know it, my time there coincided with the ongoing E. coli outbreak linked to fresh produce.
Talk about work following you on vacation.
In all seriousness, though, it was interesting to experience the effects of the outbreak directly as a consumer rather than just as an industry observer.
I knew a little about the outbreak before I left for Germany, and had followed some of the case developments on foodborne illness lawyer Bill Marler’s blog.
At that time, Spanish cucumbers had been labeled the culprit. Hundreds of people had become sick by then and a few had died.
But since Hamburg, where the outbreak was centered, was a distance away from Cologne, where I was staying, I didn’t give the situation much thought.
Shortly after we arrived, however, our hostess told us about the outbreak and said the university campus we were visiting had stopped serving fresh vegetables in its cafeteria, just to be on the safe side.
Some Germans, she thought, would choose not to eat raw vegetables until the government had found the source of E. coli.
She, however, would continue fixing them after taking the precautions of peeling and triple-washing her produce.
“I just can’t live without fresh vegetables,” she said.
“And I figured if I’m going to die from not eating them or die from eating them, I might as well eat them!”
Another friend said he would avoid all fresh produce for a while, “just to be safe.” But the twinkle in his eye made me think he was glad for the excuse not to eat vegetables.
In the next couple of days we heard that cucumbers from Spain might not be the culprit, after all, and it became clear that no one seemed to know what the problem was.
One of my German friends, a nurse, thought media outlets were overreacting and just building fear among consumers, while other friends began to take the news more seriously.
Still, none of the corner produce stands or weekend markets I visited had signs posted about vegetable recalls, and I happily ate lettuce, tomato, cucumber and carrot salads and apples, strawberries and grapes, as well as more exotic items like starfruit and kohlrabi, without worry of contracting E. coli.
It wasn’t until I got home and checked The Packer’s website that I learned sprouts had been investigated for E. coli, too, as had tomatoes and leafy greens.
On my flight back to the U.S., an article about the outbreak by German news magazine Der Spiegel caught my eye.
“But as the deadliest-ever recorded outbreak of E. coli continues to spread in Germany and to other countries, one thing has become clear — health authorities were not fully prepared,” the English version of the article stated.
“Experts say the country’s alert system is rudimentary compared to those in other developed nations.”
And people in our country complain about the systems in place to ensure food safety.
Maybe Germany should take a hint from the U.S. and make full-chain traceability the priority it has become here.
Not only could it save growers the expense of maligned produce crops, it could also save lives.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.