German E. coli Outbreak May Trigger New Food Regulations

New regulations, improved surveillance and disease prevention strategies, particularly pertaining to produce, will likely emerge in the European Union and throughout the world following the recent deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany, according to professor Patrick Wall, the former chair of the European Food Safety Authority, who spoke at a press briefing Tuesday at the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo.

More than 3,000 people have become ill and 37 people have died, to date, following a rare E.coli (EHEC-0104) outbreak which originated from German-grown bean sprouts.

"Once you have an outbreak like this it exposes weakness," says Wall. "Theres not time to fix them when an event is happening, and no one wants to give you resources when nothing is happening."

Wall is currently an associate professor at University College Dublins School of Public Health and was the first chief executive of the Irish Food Safety Authority.

Wall says there are usually six potential causes of foodborne illness outbreaks: contaminated ingredients, inadequate storage and refrigeration, insufficient cooking, cross contamination from raw products to cooked products, inadequate hygiene facilities for staff, and poorly trained and supervised staff.

When a disease outbreak does occur, virus confirmation typically takes four or five days. During the recent German outbreak, confirming the source of the source of the outbreak took more than two weeks, fanning speculation and fear that resulted in the boycott and wide-spread destruction of produce in Europe.

Officials currently dont know the root cause of this outbreak according to Wall. However, he emphasized that changes will need to be made in Germany and throughout the world following this outbreak.

Pathogens, or disease-causing agents, can come into contact with produce, or they can actually be grown into fruits and vegetables through tainted water or soil.

"People think if you wash vegetables your produce is safe," Wall says. "But if they are grown in contaminated water, you cant wash off (the disease)."

The issue is further complicated by todays food globalization. While produce, meat and dairy may come from a local farm, the livestock may have received vitamins or medication from one part of the world, and the fertilizer used to grow crops from another.

"The journey from farm to fork is not a straight line," Wall adds. "When you eat a meal you are eating off a global plate. We need consistent science throughout the world that is compatible with commerce."

Institute of Food Technologists president Robert Gravani, PhD, who joined Wall at the news conference, notes, "the best strategies are prevention strategies" for ensuring safety of the food supply, especially produce.

"Its very important that farmers have a food safety plan in place," adds Gravani, who is also a professor of food science and the director of the National Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) Program at Cornell University. This includes regulations that ensure clean irrigation water, manure and compost heated to pathogen-destroying temperatures, and keep livestock that is kept separate from crops and harvested food.

Most large retailers in the U.S. require their produce suppliers to have farm-food safety plans in place, said Gravani. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to issue new produce safety guidelines later this year.

"We need to come up with a good agricultural practice to ensure safety," Wall says. "Testing is not the solution; its too expensive. We want produce to be cheap and readily available. If not, only the wealthy will be healthy."

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