E. coli O157:H7 and its many rabid relatives jump in and out of the news with distressing regularity.  O157:H7 has been the most famous curse of the beef business for almost two decades and the long, costly battle to virtually eliminate it is almost won.  CDC data issued just a few days ago indicate a steady drop in infections and the industry was quick to ‘point with pride’ at the downward spiral of the data.

The flip side of that good news was some bad news.  William Newman of the New York Times, wrote this side note about the report: “The monitoring network detected 451 people who had become infected with non-O157 E. coli, including 69 hospitalizations and one death. In 2009, FoodNet detected just 264 cases of the less common E. coli, but officials said the rise in cases last year was probably due to increased testing for the pathogens, rather than a surge in actual infections.”

It’s those other coli cousins that are grabbing more headlines than a certain ‘flashy’ New York congressman.  We’re talking about non 0157 STEC’s and one of them, O104:H4 – not numbered among the six STEC’s that concern some U.S. Health officials, but an even deadlier seventh cousin – is the current scourge of Europe.  The Mongol hordes didn’t get this much press.

As of Thursday, Europe counted 30 dead and at least 2,900 ill; 700 of them with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the most serious and often deadly complication of an E. coli infection.  As the disease overwhelms a person’s organs and requires complicated and costly medical procedures, numbers of this magnitude were overwhelming Germany’s health services. 

The source of the outbreak has proven to be as hard to pin down as cosmic dark matter.  Germany’s health officials know exactly what E. coli strain it is but so far haven’t the foggiest idea about the carrier.  “It is important to remember the European outbreak does not appear to involve meat products,” interjected Janet Riley, the American Meat Institute’s senior vice president of public affairs and member services, when she was interviewed by MEAT&POULTRY magazine.

The Germans know that much, but nothing more.  It was probably carried by a field vegetable, they think.  Most likely something in a salad; sprouts, cucumbers, lettuce maybe?  Who knows?  Several things have been suggested, only to be ruled out later and then tossed back into the pot as ‘possible.’.  The true source might never be found but a certain anti-meat element will always say, “Trace an E. coli outbreak far enough and you’ll always find a cow.”

So I went through the dailies, combed the social nets and tracked down what people of influence were saying about the European outbreak and what it means to the North American cattle industry.

Dr. Guenael Rodier, WHO's Director of Communicable Diseases, to the Associated Press Tuesday: "If we don't know the likely source in a week's time, there's a chance we might never know the cause,"

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota: "If you gave us 200 cases and five days, we should be able to solve this outbreak."

Bill Keene, Senior Epidemiologist at Oregon's Division of Public Health: "If the vehicle is identified, then we will be able to go back and assess how well the investigation was done. If no vehicle is identified (as has been the case in some large U.S. outbreaks), then you're left with not much to say or learn."

Daniel Bahr, German Health Minister, referring to early warnings not to eat certain raw vegetables, such as bean sprouts but also cucumbers, tomato and lettuce: "The E. coli and HUS outbreak in Germany is so severe that we have to react very quickly to announce these recommendations and we still can't give the all-clear."

Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks, Hamburg (Germany) state's senator for health, defending the decision to issue a warning about Spanish cucumbers at the beginning of the crisis: "We had a different situation here in Hamburg when we put out the warning about Spanish cucumbers and removed them from the shelves. In two lab tests we had positive E. coli results, which were confirmed twice by the government laboratory and the EU laboratory, and so this was not a process of consideration but rather it was imperative,"

Miodrag Mitic, Founder of the European Traceability Institute : ‘After a series of food safety scandals in the late 90's, Europe led the way in legislating the so-called "one-up/one-down" traceability requirement for food operators. This system was never really put to test in the absence of large food-borne disease outbreaks.”

“While the investigation is ongoing, and we will be able to produce a final analysis only after all facts are known, we are today unfortunately led to believe that the fresh produce traceability system in Europe falls short of meeting its stated objectives.”  (Editor’s note:  The 2008 Irish meat recall of dioxin contaminated pork shipped to over 20 countries seemed to work well).

Marek Sawicki, Poland's farm minister: "Because of loss of trust in Polish products and as a result of lower demand, Polish vegetable producers have already lost 145 million zlotys and are losing 10 million zlotys daily. The trust was questioned because of the inept German sanitary services, irresponsible comments by a Hamburg senator and a lack of appropriate monitoring of the crisis by German officials and, partly, EU services."

Richard Levick in his Forbes magazine blog: “To be sure, the hazards of food-related miscommunication were painfully evident in this current crisis after German officials prematurely identified Spanish cucumbers as the source of the E. coli, victimizing an already economically burdened farming community. Then came German beans, but it looks now as if that’s a dead end too.”

NPR’s RAY SUAREZ: “Well, Bill Marler, have those systems . . . kept up with the pace of food moving around the globe?”

WILLIAM MARLER: “Well, in part, yes.”

“I mean, the international regulatory bodies have been working very hard at trying to get, you know, trace-back measures, standards set within countries. But, you know, as you can see from sort of the battle that is going on in Europe, as -- pointing fingers at each other, cutting off, you know, products being imported, it is not an easy thing to get a lot of diverse people to work together on a common goal.”

“In the United States, we are still having problems, you know, both in meat and in produce. And, frankly, we're not prepared for the type of bacteria that has been found in Germany. It certainly can happen in the U.S. We have three ill people who have traveled to Germany, but this outbreak is as likely to happen in the United States as it is any other country.”

“. . .more needs to be done, a more coordinated effort, both in food safety, but also, more importantly, in surveillance of illnesses, so we catch these outbreaks sooner, and we can be much more accurate in figuring out what the likely contamination vector is, you know, is it really, you know, cucumbers, is it really tomatoes, because the one thing that we don't want to happen is to have the public and have business not trust our governmental officials, who have to make incredibly difficult decisions, balancing public health with, in a sense, having a business loss.?”

“And those are difficult decisions. The Germans made a decision. It's now found not to be quite the case. And now we're still going to, you know, stumble through this.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) taking advantage of the European outbreak to introduce a bill on Tuesday to reduce "all high-risk pathogens" as well as all unregulated strains of E. coli found in the meat supply that have been proven to cause food-borne illnesses: "How many more outbreaks will we allow, and how many more lives will we lose, before we wake up and take real action.  We've known the hazards of E. coli for years. It's time we get serious, and keep contaminated food in check before it ever reaches a grocery store shelf or kitchen."

William Newman of the New York Times, writing about this week’s C.D.C. report on food borne illnesses and the occurrence of STEC’s similar to the one that caused the German outbreak: “Federal officials said on Tuesday that a national monitoring system for food-borne illness detected an increasing number of sicknesses last year from a group of rare E. coli bacteria related to the little-known and highly toxic strain that has been ravaging Germany.”

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, U.S.D.A. under secretary for food safety, in a conference call with reporters to discuss the new C.D.C. data: “Pathogens evolve. I don’t think we can afford to stand still while the pathogens are evolving around us.”  

Barbara Kowalcyk, CEO of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention: “I find this ironic (reports that the United States feels that Europe is mishandling the outbreak investigation) since the U.S. doesn't really look for non-O157 STECs and we have had some highly publicized outbreaks that took months -- not weeks -- to solve.:

“Epidemiologic investigations are time-consuming and often lead public health officials down many different paths. Of course, the decentralized nature of Germany's public health system -- not unlike many U.S. states -- has not helped the situation. But, regardless of the errors that may have been made, I still think Europe -- especially Denmark and the Netherlands -- is ahead of the curve when it comes to food safety. The United States can learn from their experiences and should follow their lead. We can start by adequately funding food safety and declaring the "Big Six" non-O157 STECs adulterants.”

James Hodges, AMI executive vice president: “We have extensive experience in battling pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 on meat products and our industry has been held up as a model for others because of our proactive efforts that have helped us achieve federal public health goals.  The issue of non O157 STECS is an issue that needs to be addressed globally across all foods. We are concerned that there may be a rush to regulate, however, before all the evidence is in. That is why we have conveyed to federal agencies that existing knowledge and technical gaps must be filled, and when it comes to this issue, those gaps are wide and numerous.”

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.