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Fresh Vegetables Endangering Health Again

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Jun 13 2011 (IPS) - The deadly epidemic of escherichia coli (EHEC) in Germany, that broke out in mid May, and which has killed 29 people so far, is the latest in a series of food and hygiene emergencies that have shaken European households for more than a decade.

This series of emergencies range from epidemics such as the so called ‘mad cow disease’ (BSE) and its human variant, Creuztfeld-Jacob disease (CJD), which affected mostly Britain and France killing some 210 people, to the more frequent contamination of eggs with dioxin, or the recurrent presence of salmonella in dairy products.

Putrid meat has been discovered in sausages, high amounts of antibiotics in shrimp and fish, and there have been revelations of a lack of general hygiene in industrial livestock farming.

In all cases, the neglect of hygiene is associated with a push for high economic returns at the sacrifice of quality, and by the general public’s desire for ever cheaper foodstuffs.

The current EHEC epidemic in Germany, caused by contamination of fresh vegetables, particularly sprouts, has led to plummeting consumption of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, and other fresh vegetables, and has caused international trade friction within the European Union.

For several weeks, German food and health agencies were unable to identify with absolute certainty the origin of the epidemic. Local authorities in the northern cities of Hamburg and Hannover falsely warned at the beginning of the outbreak that contaminated cucumbers imported from Spain were the culprits.

German health and food authorities also advised that the consumption of uncooked vegetables, especially tomatoes and lettuces, could lead to further infections. These warnings, especially against the Spanish cucumber, caused a stop of consumption of such vegetables, and enormous economic losses among farmers, both in Spain and in Germany.

The authorities also insisted that elementary hygiene measures, such as careful washing of legumes, and regular hand washing, were indispensable to avoid further contamination.

On Jun. 10, after analysing the travel and eating patterns of people infected with the bacteria, German authorities finally confirmed that a farm in Lower Saxony, specialised in growing sprouts, was the most likely centre of the epidemic. This farm has been now closed down.

Health authorities found out that several workers at the farm had suffered from diarrhoea in early May. The hypothesis is that these workers – due to poor hygienic practices – contaminated the farm’s facilities, and led to the spread of EHEC to sprouts and maybe other vegetables. The farm then delivered its produce to numerous supermarkets and restaurants all over northern Germany, thus disseminating the EHEC. Foreign tourists visiting cities in the region were also infected.

In its worst form EHEC infection causes potentially deadly haemolytic-uremic syndrome, characterised by acute renal failure. The current outbreak has killed 29 people in Germany, out of some 1,700 cases reported in the country.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified numerous cases of EHEC infections in at least 12 other European countries, including one deadly case in Sweden of a person who had travelled across northern Germany in recent weeks.

Common to all the recent food emergencies is the use of food that livestock is not used to, as in the BSE epidemic; or the intensive application of chemicals and antibiotics, to combat infections caused by poor hygiene.

The BSE epidemic was caused by the feeding of cattle – normally herbivores – with meat and bone meal, produced from the ground and cooked leftovers of the slaughtering process as well as from the cadavers of sick and injured animals such as cattle, sheep, or chickens, as a protein supplement.

Such leftovers were ground and fed to herbivore cattle until the early 2000s – they were discovered to provoke the development of a prion, a misfolded protein, which caused the deformation of the animals’ brain. The disease was then transmitted to humans through the consumption of contaminated meat.

The epidemic of BSE and CJD forced the European Union in 2001 to ban grinding leftovers and by- products of the slaughterhouse process into cattle fodder. Now, the EU is considering allowing the practice again starting next year – despite warnings and the proven health risks it implies.

The BSE epidemic provoked initially a fall in meat consumption. Similarly, the discovery of dioxin in eggs, and of antibiotics in fish, shrimps, and poultry, boosted the consumption of organic foods across Europe, especially in Germany.

Despite the regularity of food emergencies, experts claim that the quality of food is now higher than ever before, and that legislation, if sternly applied, can impede contamination.

According to the German economic historian Vera Hierholzer, author of a study on food quality since 1900, “food has never been better than today. During the last 100 years, after every food scandal, producers and health and food authorities have intensively searched for the causes, and corrected them.”

However, Hierholzer admitted that “while eating and drinking, we are victims of a delusion – based on confidence – that food and drinks prepared by others are safe.”

Vicent Barras, professor of medical and health history at the Swiss university of Lausanne, warned that food scandals are unavoidable. “The growth and internationalisation of food production lead to a growth of contamination risks,” Barras said.

Barras said that the present European legislation on food hygiene “is good enough, and functions efficiently, when we consider the enormous amount of comestibles that is produced and traded around the continent.”

The problem, Barras says, is that “all legal constraints can always be violated. And we cannot eliminate all bacteria, without putting the biodiversity balance at risk. That’s why epidemics such as the EHEC cannot be avoided”.

Other experts suggest that the EHEC crisis may have a positive effect on consumers’ care for elementary hygienic measures: “If we all use again soap, fresh water, and clean handtowels before eating and after going to the loo, we would help ourselves avoid such contaminations,” biologist Andreas Sentker said.

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