German EHEC Outbreak – The lessons we should learn

I am continuously following the news as the break in Germany about the investigation of EHEC outbreak. Authorities seem still being challenged determining the exact origin and the paths it took within the German food supply chain. In recent blog posts I outlined, why preventive measures will never provide 100% food safety and we always need systems that reactively deal with outbreaks. Last week, I explained that a crucial element is missing, a traceability system that includes the point-of-sale in food service establishments and grocery retail stores.

These two blog entries entail two very fundamental facts we need to take into account when we discuss solutions to the problem. In dealing with the current problem in Germany we will learn other facts.

First we will learn that we will always implicate innocent participants in the supply chain. If we detect a common denominator in the supply chain that implicates a certain product, raw material or establishment, authorities must protect the consumers to contain the damage. We need to keep in mind, though economical damage is being caused, people are dying and are getting sick. I really don’t blame German authorities jumping the gun a few times on this one, the US wasn’t any better during the tomato/jalapeno case. It is great to see that the European Union as an economic community deals with the fallout providing affected farmers with some sort of compensation for the collateral damage.

Another lesson we are learning is that organic foods are from a microbiological perspective not any safer than ‘regular’ foods, or in other words, that our regular food supply chain provides as healthy foods as the organic farms. These farms of course provide perhaps a more socially sustainable food supply at higher costs, compromising productivity and in some instances affordability for some income segments of our population, but this case really illustrates that we ought not to believe that we get safer foods from particular supply chains, just because we need to believe that they generally do their best efforts to provide safe foods and everybody is exposed to some residual risk.

Europe reacted pretty hard to the BSE “mad cow disease” outbreak, requiring meat companies to track each retail package of meat to individual animals or groups of animals. If I am not mistaken, this was not even an outbreak as such, since it was never proven that humans had been infected. We know though that the legislative agenda in Europe is largely driven by consumer protection. Knowing this, it will be interesting to see how legislators will react to this outbreak. If the legislative history in Europe is any indication of what is coming, everybody participant in the European Union will be affected and the way we grow, process and distribute our foods will change forever.

What will become of this will depend on the results of the investigation and it almost seems as if we may never know.

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