Thursday 2 June 2011
Many of us will have undoubtedly seen the recent news of contaminated cucumbers and salad vegetables in the European Union. The cucumbers, found to contain a strain of E.coli which can cause the deadly haemolytic-uraemia syndrome (HUS) have so far caused the death of 17 people, 16 of which were in Germany where the outbreak has been centred. More than 1,500 people have been infected by the enterohaemorrhagic E.coli strain so far with reports that the outbreak has reached the United States via those visiting Germany returning home to the US.
The priority has of course been to identify the source of the outbreak but the BBC reported today that those investigating the incident claim "we may never know" the source of the infection and that it could be weeks, or even months before the last infection is seen.
This frighting incident highlights some important aspects of our food system and the unseen dangers it can pose. While the European Union has some of the strictest food-safety checks in the world there is still ample opportunity for these to fail. Modern food production and agriculture has to meet the needs of millions of people and is charged with providing seasonal produce 365 days a year, this has typically resulted in the creation of giant greenhouses which can provide vast quantities of fruits and vegetables all year round such as those in Spain or Holland. One very serious downside of such large food production facilities is that any form of contamination can spread rapidly from the source to the final destination - especially when many large supermarket chains adopt the 'just in time' model of business where food has barely seen the soil it was grown in before it's travelling long distance to the supermarket shelves. Such speedy movement of food leaves little time to counteract the discovery of crop contamination. It's also important to remember just how far our food travels from field (or industrial scale greenhouse) to plate and that such long distance travel also creates opportunity for contamination to occur as food is moved from location to location and may not always be stored correctly at every stage in its journey.
The source of these recent infections remains a mystery however and what matters most now is that, instead of pointing fingers and blaming each other, European members work together to track the source of contamination, wherever it may be as the absolute priority must be to prevent further infection and loss of life. In a knee-jerk reaction the source of contamination was said to be producers in Spain but despite having no evidence to support this claim the accusation was made public and spanish producers are believed to have already lost significant profits as a result.
Whilst cases have been reported in the UK, there is no immediate threat as those infected are believed to have visited Germany recently indicating they were not infected through eating food from british food outlets and measures have already been taken to curtail the possibility of further infection in those countries affected.
For all developments in this story visit the BBC news website.