The death toll from an E. coli outbreak in Germany rose to 35 Sunday and health officials fear others may die. The outbreak has sickened nearly 3,100 so far, though those same health officials say the pace of the outbreak has slowed significantly.
On Friday, health officials announced they had determined the source of the contamination was sprouts from a farm in northern Germany. They tracked the bacteria's path from hospital patients struggling with diarrhea and kidney failure, to restaurants where they had dined, to specific meals and ingredients they ate, and finally back to a single farm.
What contaminated the sprouts in the first place is still under investigation. It could be tainted seeds, water or nearby livestock.
Investigators claim it was little surprise that sprouts were the culprit. They have been blamed in least 30 food poisoning cases over the past 15 years in the U.S. and a large outbreak in Japan in 1996 that killed 11 people and sickened more than 9,000. Growing conditions for sprouts and the fact they are eaten mostly raw make them ideal transmitters of disease. Cultivated in water, they require heat and humidity — precisely the same conditions E. coli needs to thrive.
Scientists say E. coli can stick tightly to the surface of seeds used to grow sprouts and they can lay dormant for months. Once water is added to make the seeds grow, the bacteria can reproduce up to 100,000 times.
Last week I criticized some opinion writers in the national media for laying the blame for such E. coli outbreaks at the front gate of modern livestock production. It’s a rush to judgment, though I admitted last week that livestock manure may be the original source of the European contamination.
While many pundits seem eager to vilify livestock production, they don’t seem nearly as interested in telling the American public that technology has a solution for much of our E. coli contaminations. It’s called irradiation, and it’s currently underused.
Irradiation is the process of exposing food to ionizing radiation to kill bacteria such as E. coli. It also destroys a host of other contaminants such as viruses and insects.
Irradiation is approved for use on food products in 40 countries, yet it has not been widely adopted. That’s because of public perception.
Approved for use in 2000 in the U.S., irradiation has been attacked by consumer organizations, environmental groups and some producers. They fear the “ionizing radiation” used in the process that destroys the bacteria. In fact, consumer fears – fueled by pundits with little evidence – have prevented widespread use of irradiation. Apparently, the fear of extremely low levels of radiation is of greater concern than our fear E. coli and a host of other contaminants. It shouldn’t be.
Our fears of irradiation are similar to those exhibited a century ago when pasteurized milk first came into use. That seemed to work out pretty well.
Many scientists from around the globe believe irradiation is a silver bullet that can drastically reduce food contamination and human illness from tainted food. It is not, they believe, a replacement for sanitation and other regulated food safety practices already in place, but it is a tool that can greatly increase food safety and minimize human suffering. What’s not to like about that?
The European E. coli outbreak of the past few weeks should serve to spur the implementation of irradiation. Let’s stop pointing fingers and start irradiating our food.