The recent E. coli outbreak in Europe was the deadliest in history - infecting more than 4,000 people causing severe diarrhea, a high rate of kidney failure (800+ cases), and, in at least 48 cases, death, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
As of today, European health officials announced that they have cautiously identified contaminated Egyptian fenugreek seeds as the probable link between Germany's devastating outbreak and the smaller outbreak in France. It was confirmed earlier in June that sprouts were the food source that caused people to become ill - and that the sprouts came from an organic farm in northern Germany. Officials caution that there is still much uncertainty, making a point to note that the fenugreek seeds may not be the common cause of all the infections, but that it appears, at this point, to be the common link.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial made us think about this outbreak - the deadliest ever - by adding a new perspective to the discussion. Dr. Peter Coclanis, Albert Ray Newsome Distinguished Professor & Director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, brings into question the world response to 2010's Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak in eggs in the United States and this 2011 E. coli outbreak in sprouts.
From the editorial:
"Curiously—I haven't heard any of the critics calling for draconian regulations on organics, much less for the dismantling of this still small, and thus readily terminable, component of the food industry."
Coclanis continues - saying the salmonella scare in the U.S. created near hysteria, with over 500 million eggs being recalled after (ultimately) 1,939 people became ill.
"At the time, raging critics of 'industrial agriculture,' 'factory farms' and our 'lax' regulatory regime demanded drastic reforms in both our food-production and food-safety monitoring regimes. Not surprisingly, after the 'epidemic' ended—with a whimper, not a bang—none of the critics bothered to point out that not one death resulted from it, that on balance the regulations in place worked well, and that the "industrial" food system in the U.S. is actually very safe."
Dr. Coclanis breaks down the discussion further:
"Regarding the last point: There are about 311.4 million people living in the U.S. today, and most of them eat (at least!) three meals a day. That comes to about one billion "eating events" daily, during each of which we are subject to risk from one or another nasty food or water-borne disease.
As a matter of fact, we do contract mild cases of such diseases—including from salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli, and noroviruses—all the time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one out of six Americans comes down with a food/water-borne illness every year, that 128,000 people get hospitalized from such illnesses, and that about 3,000 die annually because of something they ate or drank.
While these numbers sound large, they aren't. Let's do the math. In our much maligned "industrial" food regime, eight people a day, on average, die from ingesting "bad" food—mostly the very old, the very young, and people with severely compromised immune systems. That's about one out of every 39 million Americans.
If there are roughly a billion eating events daily in the U.S., then there is one death for every 125 million of these events. And that's not even considering daily non-meal "drinking" events—every time we put ourselves at risk of ingesting tainted liquids between meals. If we included such events as well, the U.S. food and drink regime becomes safer still, particularly for those without severely compromised immune systems between the ages of, say, two and 75.
These are the kinds of numbers that should inspire confidence in the safety of our food supply, not weaken knees."
Now we want to know what you think...
- Did you react differently to the egg recall than the sprout recall? What if the sprout recall had been in North America?
- What are your thoughts on regulations for the organic food industry? Do you think current regulations are adequate?
- Do you feel confident in the safety of food today?