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Europe’s Food Poisoning Outbreak: Reaping What It Has Sown

Europe’s Food Poisoning Outbreak: Reaping What It Has Sown

Europe’s Food Poisoning Outbreak: Reaping What It Has Sown

Europe’s Food Poisoning Outbreak: Reaping What It Has Sown

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Dr. Henry Miller - via Forbes.com

Northern Europe is in the throes of a record-setting outbreak of potentially fatal food poisoning that has caused serious illness in more than 1,200 and killed 16.  The pathogen is a virulent strain of bacteria called enterohemorrhagic E. coli.  This enterohemorrhagic E. coli can cause severe gastrointestinal and systemic disease, including hemolytic-uremic syndrome leading to kidney failure and death.  The source of the bacteria is still unknown, but fresh cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce are the prime suspects.

Modern farming operations — especially the larger ones — employ strict standards and safeguards designed to keep food free of pathogens. But growers of fresh produce cannot ensure that their harvests will be completely safe all the time.  During the past few years, the American food supply has experienced a number of high-profile incidents of contamination of beef, fresh produce and processed foods, including Mexican peppers, California lettuce and peanuts from a Georgia processing plant.  Federal officials have expressed concern: “We recognize that we have reached a plateau in the prevention of foodborne disease, and there must be new efforts to develop and evaluate food-safety practices from the farm to the table,” said Robert Tauxe, the deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases.

Because agriculture is an outdoor activity and subject to all manner of unpredictable challenges, there are limits to how safe we can make it.  If the goal is to make a cultivated field completely safe from microbial contamination, the only definitive solution is to pave it over and build a parking lot on it.  But we’d only be trading very rare agricultural mishaps for fender-benders.

Nor can we rely on processors to consistently make food pathogen-free.  A 2006 spinach-based outbreak of food poisoning demonstrated that our faith in processor labels such as “triple washed” and “ready to eat” must be tempered with skepticism.  Processors were quick to proclaim the cleanliness of their own operations and deflect blame toward growers.  Finger-pointing aside, every link in the food chain shares responsibility for food safety and quality.


For European organic marketers, politicians, activists and consumers, the irony is bitterer than fresh-picked radicchio.  The technology that affords the best method of safeguarding the food supply is the one they’ve fought hardest to forestall and confound.  In the wake of the current outbreak, will they revisit their opposition to biotechnology?  Will they begin to appreciate the ways in which this technology can save lives and safeguard commerce?  Will they permit science, common sense and civic-mindedness to trump ideology?
Don’t bet the farm on it.

Henry I. Miller is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  A physician, he was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.