FDA Weighs in on Europe E. coli Outbreak

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced that it has been in routine contact with the European Union (EU) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to monitor the current outbreak of <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/practice_areas/food_poisoning">E. coli O104 that appears to have originated in Germany. The FDA is also collaborating with the agencies to track any illnesses in the U.S. that may be related to the outbreak.

Current totals, said the Wall Street Journal, indicate that 22 have died, 627 seriously, and 12 countries have been involved in the massive outbreak. MSNBC reports that over 2300 have been stricken.

We previously explained that the German E. coli strain was identified as new, mutant, and potentially deadly, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). According to WHO, wrote MSNBC previously, initial genetic sequencing points to this new strain being a altered collaboration of two separate E. coli bacterium with “lethal genes,” which is likely why the outbreak in Europe has grown in scale and is considered dangerous. “This is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before,” Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at WHO, said, quoted MSNBC. This emerging strain has, added Kruse “various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing.”

At this time, the Robert Koch Institute, the disease control and prevention public health agency of Germany, has not yet identified the definitive source of the infectious agent causing the outbreak, but has recommended that consumers in Germany avoid raw tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce. Originally, cucumbers from Spain were tentatively blamed, but researchers determined that a different E. coli strain was involved in that contamination, said MSNBC.

To date, FDA believes that this outbreak has not affected the U.S. food supply. The U.S. receives relatively little fresh produce from the EU, particularly at this time of year. Due to the short shelf life of most fresh produce and the availability of growing areas in the U.S. and Central America, the EU is not a significant source of fresh produce for the U.S. In response to the outbreak and as a safety precaution, FDA established certain additional import controls. FDA is currently conducting increased surveillance of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and raw salads from areas of concern.

“When these products are presented for import, we will sample them, and we will analyze them,” said Dara Corrigan, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, who is responsible for U.S. FDA border activities. “The FDA will not allow any products found to be contaminated to enter the U.S., and, if contamination is found, will flag future shipments for appropriate action. As more information about the source of the outbreak emerges, we will adjust our public health protection efforts, especially those at the border, accordingly.”

“Food growers, manufacturers and distributors are responsible for marketing safe food and taking any steps necessary to ensure that their products are indeed safe,” said Donald Kraemer, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “The FDA has provided scientific guidance to the produce industry on ways to minimize the risk of E. coli, and these methods will reduce the risk of the strain of E. coli causing the European outbreak as well as the more common strains.”

This outbreak has not affected the United States. Produce remains safe and there is no reason for Americans to alter where they shop, what they buy or what they eat. In general, consumers can also help to protect themselves by taking some basic steps to prevent the spread of foodborne disease, such as preparing food using clean tools, working with clean hands, and washing and storing fresh produce appropriately.

The Wall Street Journal just reported that German officials said it was possible that domestically grown bean sprouts could be responsible for the rare and deadly outbreak. Contamination was tentatively linked to a northern German bean-sprout farm that tested with an E. coli strain matching the strain involved; agriculture ministry officials in Germany’s Lower Saxony said links were found between the bean-sprout supplier and about five restaurants that fed diners who later fell ill, said the Journal. One employee at the bean sprout producer was sickened with E. coli. “This all, in combination with the different clues, makes the chances of this [supplier] being the source pretty high,” said Gert Hahne, spokesman for the ministry, quoted the Journal.

But, following the Journal report, MSNBC reported that according to German officials, the initial testing revealed that evidence did not link sprouts from the organic farm in Germany to the historic and ongoing outbreak. Some 23 of 40 samples came back negative for the so-called “super toxic” E. coli strain; the 17 remaining samples continue to be tested. While testing continues to ensure “full certainty,” MSNBC noted that current negative results does not mean prior batches weren’t contaminated. “A conclusion of the investigations and a clarification of the contamination’s origin is not expected in the short term,” the ministry added, quoted MSNBC.

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