It seems like a tragedy to me that German health officials mistakenly blamed the world’s worst E. coli outbreak on cucumbers from Spain and now have found out the likely culprit is bean and other sprouts from one farm in Germany. Meanwhile one report I heard on NPR radio indicated Spain’s produce industry or at least one distributor ( interviewed in the report) has been put out of business for the time being with all of its workers left idle.
So far, 22 deaths have been reported and 2,200 cases of people becoming ill in the latest E. coli outbreak that one report I read termed the worst ever reported.
And even before I can finish this post I read now that German officials are still not sure where the contamination has come from and are still warning the public to be wary of vegetables, imported and domestic, I guess. And apparently it was not just cucumbers, but lettuce and other vegetables that had been or are suspected.
With foods being imported and exported all over the world it is a difficult situation health officials face when a contamination incident surfaces. They of course feel obligated to warn the public for that is their whole mission. And the public would be rightly outraged if they withheld vital information and people suffered or died as the result.
Unfortunately, food contamination turns out to be difficult to pinpoint many times, what with all the distances and stops it makes along the way and the possibilities of cross contamination and the fact that food stuffs may become just ingredients mixed in with other items in processed foods.
But this current incident has shades of Alar in Apples, eventually found to not be much of a threat or no threat at all but quite devastating to the Washington State apple industry many years ago after negative reports about it (no Alar, a chemical growth regulator, is produced or used anymore, as I understand it — and you know? That is probably a good thing).
More recently, a couple of years or more ago, tomatoes sold in the U.S. (some imported from Mexico and elsewhere) were suspected to be a source of contamination. Much of the year’s crop was put to waste over the scare, as I recall. Finally it turned out that the contamination was linked to one farm growing peppers in Mexico, as I recall.
All this kind of hits home with me. I’m not a farmer but I make my living largely from the produce business. I haul it over the road.
Coincidentally, I suffered food poisoning that might or might not have been linked to those contaminated peppers I mentioned. I was not driving at the time — I was recovering from a cancer treatment and was on my way to a hospital in San Francisco for tests when I ate an omelet at a restaurant along the way. I think that is where I got the food poisoning.
I think health officials are in a bind. On the one hand they have a duty to warn the public as soon as possible and on the other hand they can do grave damage to whole industries, not to mention individual producers or even employees whose livelihoods depend upon working in the industry when their reports are erroneous.
I would say their best bet would be to always qualify their warnings and not make categorical statements unless they are really sure.