Europe is having its “spinach” moment, multiplied, with continuing news of a massive illness outbreak linked unofficially to E. coli on Spanish cucumbers.

Recent updates on the web about the outbreak – now a regular hotlink from the Drudge Report - give credence to its severity. More than have 1,200 have been sickened and 14 are dead from the E. coli outbreak.

Is this “simply” a very bad on-farm breakdown of Good Agricultural Practices? Is the outbreak the result of an exceptionally toxic warehouse somewhere in the supply chain? Could it possibly be agro-terrorism, as unthinkable as that prospect is?

There are all kinds of recriminations and blame-placing going on in Europe.  Truly this is an extreme blow to consumer confidence, one even more severe than the 2006 foodborne outbreak in the U.S. linked to E. coli on spinach.

In that U.S. outbreak, the Center for Disease Control’s last update on the outbreak (Oct. 6, 2006)  revealed 199 persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 had been reported to CDC from 26 states. About half were hospitalized and three deaths were confirmed on that date.

Here is one link talking about the messy state of the European investigation.

From that story in DW-World:

The E. coli outbreak in Germany is showing no signs of slowing down. So far 14 people have died and around 1,200 infected in Germany, and new cases are popping up elsewhere in Europe.

But while the German authorities are working feverishly to try to locate the various sources – one batch of Spanish cucumbers is not thought to be the only source – the vegetable farmers and retailers are being hit by a massive downturn in income.

"Cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes are being rejected, no matter where they come from," Andreas Brügger, director of the German fruit and vegetable retailers association (DFHV), told Deutsche Welle. "Large supermarket chains, canteens, hospitals, gastronomy firms are all turning vegetables away. People are scared."

 Another report from the Financial Times:

The European Commission said that two southern Spanish producers were being investigated as potential sources of the Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, or STEC, while a third suspect batch of cucumbers from either the Netherlands or Denmark was also under investigation. Results should be known by Wednesday.

Officials in Germany said it was still unclear whether the cucumbers were contaminated with the bacteria at source, in transit, or in storage in Germany. But Ilse Aigner, minister of agriculture and consumer protection, said: “This concerns human lives. Consumer protection must be the highest priority.”

In Germany, the authorities have urged consumers not to eat raw cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuces, on the advice of the state-run Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, where central government and state officials met on Monday consider further measures.

 

From The Local in Denmark:


The Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has described the outbreak as "one of the largest worldwide and the largest ever reported in Germany."

The Spanish fruit and vegetable producer-exporter federation said sales have halted across nearly all of Europe as the scare rippled across the continent.

Asked which countries had stopped buying Spanish produce, federation president Jorge Brotons told a news conference: "Almost all Europe. There is a domino effect on all vegetables and fruits."

Dutch Agriculture Minister Henk Bleker said he could "understand the German authorities' attitude," after they recommended that people avoid raw vegetables, especially cucumber, lettuce and tomatoes.

But he noted this had led to a drastic drop in demand, with Dutch vegetable exports to Germany "virtually stopped" since Sunday, and his ministry said it would ask the EU for help.

 

TK: As all this unfolds, The European Food Safety Agency isn’t exactly giving consumers great insight on what is happening. From the EFSA website:

 

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is closely monitoring the recent outbreak of E.coli in Germany. The specific strains involved are called Shiga toxin-producing E.coli and are known to cause amongst other symptoms Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome in humans which is acquired as a foodborne illness and can cause serious health effects.

In order to respond as quickly as possible, EFSA is liaising with the European Commission, the European Union Reference Laboratory for VTEC, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) as well as with all relevant Member States through its Advisory Forum network and has put internal procedures in place, should an urgent request for advice be required.

In collaboration with ECDC and the Member States, EFSA collects data on foodborne outbreaks across Europe on an annual basis. In such circumstances, these data serve as valuable historical records on the frequency of similar events.

 

 More of the same from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in this May 30 update:

The source of the outbreak is under investigation, but contaminated food seems the most likely vehicle of infection. There is currently no indication that raw milk or meat is associated with the outbreak.

 

TK: Farmers and consumers want answers. Unfortunately, many of  who have suffered because of E. coli on food cannot be made whole, even when the answers come.