x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Finger-pointing over latest food safety scare has a familiar feel

As a virulent strain of E coli brings deaths in Germany, Spain attempts to reassure people about the safety of its vegetables - the finger-pointing has a familiar feel to it.

A farmer throws out a cucumber crop after it was impossible to sell it in El Ejido, near Almeria in southeastern Spain.
A farmer throws out a cucumber crop after it was impossible to sell it in El Ejido, near Almeria in southeastern Spain.

You know that there's a lot more to a health scare than meets the eye when politicians start scoffing food to show us all how safe it is.

Last Monday, the secretary for agriculture and fisheries for the Spanish region of Andalusia, Clara Aguilera, stood before the press munching on a cucumber in a bid to reassure the watching world that the vegetables grown in her home land were not to blame for the latest, lethal bout of Escherichia coli (E coli) bacterium.

It was a bold move - and not just on health grounds. The act was designed to counter reports from the media in Germany, where the outbreak first occurred, blaming poor hygiene on Spanish farms for the spread of the bug.

Aguilera's defiant stance may well be more than a publicity stunt. But whatever the true cause of this latest scare nothing can deflect from the fact that, at the time of writing, this new form of E coli has led to 19 deaths and more than 1,200 reported cases of infection in Germany alone.

This strain, labelled E coli (EHEC) 0104, lists intestinal problems and bloody diarrhoea as its initial symptoms. Around one in three victims went on to develop haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS) - a disease that attacks the kidneys and the nervous system.

"As food scares go, this one is particularly alarming because we're seeing incidents of HUS on an unprecedented scale," warns Dr Dilys Morgan, head of the gastrointestinal, emerging and zoonotic infections department at the UK Health Protection Agency. "It's very unusual for adults to contract HUS. It mainly affects young children and the elderly, but what we're seeing is predominantly young females getting this condition."

So far, the epidemiological research suggests that certain types of vegetables, including leafy green salads, tomatoes and cucumbers are host to the mutant strain. Scientists are frantically trying to work out how the disease is spreading and why a particular pocket of northern Germany seems to have been most severely affected. In the meantime, the market in fresh vegetables in Europe has gone into meltdown.

In the UK, Aguilera's public demonstration of faith in her home- grown food struck a particularly resonant chord. In May 1990, John Gummer, then minister for agriculture, famously attempted to force his four-year-old daughter to eat a burger before the press to show how safe British beef was amid growing fears of "mad cow disease".

Within two weeks of Gummer's belief-in-beef demonstration, the French government had banned all imports of it from Britain amid claims that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) was rife in UK cattle. Much to Gummer's embarrassment, the UK government would confirm in 1996 that a probable link between BSE and Creutzfeld Jakob's disease - a fatal condition that affects humans - did exist. The announcement sparked a rise in reported food poisoning cases, another outbreak of press and public hysteria - and a European Union ban on all exports of British beef.

The worldwide ban on beef from British farms wasn't completely lifted until 2006 - 20 years after the first alarm bells had rung.

This time around things are moving at a much faster pace. Within a day of Aguilera's press call, Moscow announced a ban on all fresh vegetables from the European Union (EU) entering Russia. The UAE imposed a temporary ban on cucumbers from the EU, while other imported vegetables are subject to health restrictions, according to a statement from Dr Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, environment minister.

Spanish farmers claim to have lost hundreds of millions of euros in lost orders already and the government in Madrid is seeking compensation after German scientists retracted their claims that a batch of cucumbers from Spain are to blame.

True to form, when it comes to food health scares, the story is changing by the day and the finger pointing is becoming increasingly frenetic. Health experts in Germany and China announced on Friday that this version of E coli is proving to be a "super toxic" mutation not seen in previous outbreaks and as a result resistant to certain forms of antibiotics.

Equally as worrying for consumers throughout Europe, and especially UK dairy farmers, is the news that milk also could contain a new strain of the MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) "superbug".

Although experts have been quick in trying to extinguish any alarm regarding the safety of cow's milk and dairy products, recently published research in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases on the subject of intensive farming, suggested that a newly discovered MRSA bug carried by cattle could pass to humans.

Both the E coli and the MRSA scares follow a recent international conference on food safety at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. At the conference Dr Antony Potter, of Queen's Centre for Assured and Traceable Foods, presented research on nearly 2,500 food scares in the past 10 years.

These included the recall of 380 million eggs in the USA following a salmonella outbreak at an Iowa farm.

Even without Dr Potter's research, the issue of food-related health scares is one that the public has grown reluctantly familiar with over the years.

The aim of the recent food safety conference was to help create a database for measuring trends and reducing health scares. "Most food recalls result from operational mistakes, such as incorrect labelling, the presence of an undeclared ingredient, or contamination during the production process," explains Dr Potter.

But in the case of the current scare the biological cause may be much tougher to detect. E coli is a common bacteria. "Most people normally carry harmless strains of it in their intestine," says Dr Dylis Morgan. "This form is a rare serogroup. Although single cases of E coli O104 have been seen before, it has never before been associated with an outbreak."

For now, all Morgan and her counterparts in the UAE and across the globe can do is to warn and to wait. "We have briefed medical professionals on the symptoms to be aware of and are advising people who may have visited Germany recently and who are feeling sick to seek immediate medical attention."