Whitehawk Associates


US Salmonella and E.coli outbreaks – the underlying factors?

Last month the US CDC issued a recall following the discovery of Salmonella in eggs, then last week we had the news of a Salmonella outbreak linked to poultry and lasting 12 months and covering 35 States and 22 different slaughter facilities, then this week we hear of an E.coli outbreak linked to salad, and we also learn that Romaine lettuce is particularly prone to E.coli contamination.

On the one hand I’m hugely impressed by the diligence and sophistication of the US FDA and CDC departments, especially as I live in Asia where most food poisoning cases go unreported, but on the other hand I’m left wondering if there’s really an emerging risk of food poisoning related to a specific type of salad vegetable?

I think we have several developments that are highlighting long-standing food safety risks.  First we have the so-called ‘DNA fingerprinting’ using the futuristically named ‘pulse field gel electrophoresis’ (PFGE) together with the more recent developments in whole genome sequencing – and this combined with the linking of 83 laboratories within the CDC Pulsenet system has enabled the identification of outbreaks that had no obvious epidiomiological links.

Next we have a growing realization amongst US legal firms that food poisoning outbreaks may be good opportunity for class actions, and DNA based evidence creates a much more compelling case than old fashioned epidemiological sleuthing.

And finally, we have a trend for all Government Departments to use the media to deliver safety messages.  An outbreak related to turkey just before Thanksgiving may have been too good an opportunity to miss.

Of course all of these factors will help to keep a strong focus on food safety, which is always good, but the US press reports are repeated in global media, and I do worry that in Asia, where food poisoning investigations are not as sophisticated as in the US, where street food is still the main source of meals for office workers and where most farms are run by families at a subsistence level, a focus on risks due to a specific variety lettuce may be a distraction from the more basic safety issues prevalent in this region.

Just because one approach in a highly developed market is good for that country, does not mean it’s applicable to developing markets where water supply, lack of refrigeration and adulteration may present greater risks than Caesar Salads.