German E. coli outbreak underscores need to fund FSMA

by Keith Nunes
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The food-borne illness outbreak occurring earlier this month in Northern Germany due to a rare strain of E. coli is a stark reminder of why an adequate national food safety system requires two key components: Diligence by the producers and companies manufacturing the products and a robust surveillance and traceability system to limit the scope and damage of any outbreak that may occur. With those two essentials in mind, it was particularly disheartening to see the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee vote to reduce federal funding targeting national food safety efforts.

While any food safety issue is a matter of concern for industry executives, it is the lesser known, emerging threats that are the most problematic. The implementation of hazard analysis and critical control point programs throughout the food and beverage industry has given most manufacturers adequate controls to assess, verify and respond to a food safety problem.

But as the situation in Germany has shown, it is the rarer, lesser known pathogens that may cause the most significant market disruption. The E. coli strain in question, O104:H4, was last associated with illnesses in 2009 in the Republic of Georgia. The strain was isolated from two patients who expressed the same symptoms, but no source of infection was ever identified. Making matters worse, the 2009 strain was less virulent than the one recently isolated in Germany, which has proven more resistant to antibiotics.

Raw bean sprouts have been identified as the source of the outbreak, but the path to source identification was fraught with mind-boggling market upheavals. In the process of identifying raw sprouts, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce were implicated, and the market reaction was devastating to farmers and producers of those products throughout the European Union. In Spain, much produce ended up being left in the fields to rot because consumers were warned to avoid certain products.

A recent survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute shows the variability of consumer concerns about food safety. Consumers today were found to be less concerned about food safety than was the case four or five years ago because they are hearing less about the issue in the news. But that does not mean those responsible for food safety should abandon diligence. The vote by the House committee was a genuine disappointment because as the Food and Drug Administration moves forward with the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the resources needed to activate the program are being denied. In response to the committee’s vote, the Obama administration contends that the funding level in the bill and resulting staff reductions will severely limit the FDA’s ability to protect the public’s health and assure American consumers that foodstuffs are safe.

During the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food expo, in a session regarding the German E. coli outbreak, Patrick Wall, the former chair of the European Food Safety Authority, said, “Once you have an outbreak like this it exposes weakness. There’s not time to fix them when an event is happening, and no one wants to give you resources when nothing is happening.”

Representative Harold Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House committee, said when the agriculture appropriations bill was brought to the full committee by the subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, Food and Drug Administration and related agencies, “As is the goal of all our appropriations bills this year, this legislation reflects hard decisions to cut lower priority programs, reduce spending in programs that can be scaled back, and target funds where they are needed most so that our nation continues on the path to fiscal recovery.”

As Dr. Wall noted, no one wants to devote resources to an issue when a need is absent or less apparent. But in this case, the government’s food safety efforts should not be considered a lower priority program or one that may be scaled back. As the outbreak in Germany has shown, now is exactly the time to make this investment.
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