Saturday, June 4, 2011


For those of you watching the E. coli outbreak unfurl across Europe, it's a grim reminder of just what globalization can mean: shared disease as well as shared profit. Fortunately E. coli is no bubonic plague, but it's frustrating as well because there doesn't seem to be any known source for the outbreak. Unlike the incidents of contaminated spinach/peanut butter in the US, there doesn't seem to be a centralized source for the outbreak, and indeed, right now, there's not even a suspect food to be aware of. It seems to come from produce, but that could mean anything.

What we do know is that this is not your normal, everday E. coli that sits in your gut and plays nice. It's not O157:H7, perhaps the most deadly strain of E. coli known to man, but rather a version of the strain O104 that picked up a nasty trick or two in its evolution. Most worrisome is that multiple news sources (BBC, Guardian) are reporting that it appears to be antibiotic resistant. Germany has started to request blood donations to treat their patients, because apparently that's all that will work.

On Monday news sources were reporting that it was produce from Spain that was problematic, but as of Wednesday Germany was determined to be the source of the outbreak, and today the Nu website is reporting that they finally have "ground zero" for the most severe outbreak, a restaurant in Lubeck where 17 of the 18 dead in Germany ate. And apparently so did the two Americans who came down with symptoms. Lubeck is a popular tourist town, so it wouldn't shock me if that were the source of all of the cases.

In the Netherlands, fortunately, most of the produce is labeled with a country of origin, and very little of it comes from Germany. But you have to remember that, just because the outbreak began in Germany doesn't mean that the infected food was German to begin with. For all we know, it could have come to Europe in a haggis, or made its way in a maggot-cheese.

Eric Schlosser has a scathing commentary about the US food safety recall system in the book Fast Food Nation, and it's interesting to see Europe's response to contaminated food: there is no recall, mostly because there is nothing to recall. Ever since the outbreak was reported, stores have been dumping their potentially-infected produce, and farmers are being forced to raze their crops because they cannot be sold. All this--billions of euros' worth of produce--without any idea of what might be the source? It's nice to know that we're safe. It's still mind-boggling, how much food is being lost.

In spite of all this, I'm not all that worried, frankly. Oh, I'll cut back on fresh salads and cook veggies as a precaution for now, but avoiding the best parts of summer is simply an abomination to me, especially given the Dutch winter diet. It helps to remember, in all this, that merely getting out of bed is a defiance of natural law, and going to the market is a dare. We just don't think of it that way. So I'm not going to let a couple of bugs get me down.

Edit: As of 6 June, evidence is pointing to sprouts as the culprit.

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