The deadly outbreak of E. coli in Germany that has taken 22 lives and sickened some 2,200 is a reminder both of how vulnerable we can be to food-borne illness and how important it is to have a strong food safety system.
American health officials report that so far there is no evidence that the rare strain of E. coli found in Germany has entered the United States food system. E. coli can be found in human and animal feces, and it spreads to vegetables via animal waste in fields and irrigation water, or from farm workers' poor hand-washing. German health authorities have recommended against eating raw lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and sprouts — particularly in the northern states of Germany: Hamburg, Bremen, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein. The lack of an outbreak in America is somewhat reassuring. It would be even more so if we had a good federal program for detecting E. coli in produce.
Congress voted last winter to establish just such a program as part of a comprehensive modernization of our food safety system. Yet the budget moving through the House of Representatives would cut funding for many of these new food safety efforts.
The Obama administration wants $955 million to go for food safety at the Food and Drug Administration for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The House subcommittee that oversees the FDA sliced that back to $750 million, a figure that is $87 million less than the agency now spends on food safety. In short, the FDA is being told to do more about food safety but is being given less money to do it. This makes little sense. When the bill reaches the Senate, that chamber should restore full funding for food safety.
In addition to better E. coli detection, the new food safety bill included programs that would set up procedures to quickly track the source of an outbreak. Finding the source has proven difficult in Germany. Initially, cucumbers grown in Spain were suspected of being the culprit. This turned out to be incorrect and infuriated Spanish farmers, who lost millions of dollars in sales. Next, German authorities turned their attention to a farm that cultivated sprouts from vegetables, which were often used in mixed salads. That, too, turned out to be an inconclusive lead.
The United States has experienced similar problems. A 2008 salmonella outbreak that eventually was traced to tainted peppers at first was incorrectly attributed to tomatoes, which angered tomato growers. What these incidents show is that developing better back tracking procedures is an area of food safety that needs more, not less, funding.
The news from Germany is upsetting. This outbreak, one of the deadliest in modern history, involves a rare strain of E. coli, 0104:H4, that is an unusually virulent bug. One clear message Americans can take from the German experience it that this is not a time to let our food safety guard down. The Senate should restore the ill-advised cuts to food safety programs made by the House.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times