x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

E coli on rocket reveals threats to food safety

Salad riddled with pathogens in concentrations thousands of times higher than in a lavatory raises larger questions about food safety and inspection policies.

Make sure to eat your vegetables; you might be better off ignoring Mum's advice in this case. As The National reported yesterday, rocket, among the healthiest of greens - high in vitamins A, C, K and folic acid - can also come with high levels of E coli.

Unhealthy levels of the bacteria, in many cases far higher concentrations than many countries consider to be safe, were found in samples of rocket at 64 shops in Dubai and Sharjah. E coli can lead to diarrhoea, dehydration and respiratory problems, particularly in children and people with weakened immune systems. In rare cases, it can be deadly.

At many dinner tables in the country, rocket is served as a common appetiser, accompanying other local produce. In the salads of health conscious consumers, it is also a staple. But regardless of a person's diet, rocket's frequent contamination is reason for concern.

As we report today, elevated levels of E coli do not necessarily pose a health threat to consumers; indeed, Dubai authorities state that there have not been any E coli-related illnesses confirmed. Nevertheless, rocket riddled with pathogens in concentrations thousands of times higher than in a lavatory raises larger questions about food safety and inspection policies.

This is not the first time that food safety has been brought to the fore. Last year, two children died of suspected food poisoning after a meal from a Dubai restaurant. The emirate introduced plans to create a central database for food safety complaints and began more frequent inspections of eateries.

Ensuring the cleanliness of foods on supermarket shelves may be more complicated. Food can be contaminated at several stages in the supply chain; inspectors must ensure that practices are hygienic at each stage.

Dr Dennis Russell, the professor at American University of Sharjah whose research revealed the rocket contamination, suspects that growers who use liquefied raw faeces for fertiliser, rather than compost soil, are responsible for the contamination. Simple contact with faecal matter would not cause the bacterial levels, he concluded. What's more, E coli might not be the only contaminant living in this waste material. Dr Russell did not test for salmonella or other dangerous bacteria.

While this research focuses on E coli, Dr Russell should be credited with alerting us to a wider problem. There is ample reason for more research into food safety, and for the authorities to update regulations accordingly. In a rapidly developing country, there are certainly gaps in regulatory policies that remain.