Friday, June 10, 2011

It's Not About the Sprouts

 
“Of course we are challenging nature itself, and, it hits back…. We have to accept that it’s much stronger than we are.”
- Werner Herzog (German Filmmaker on filming of Fitzcarraldo)
            In Berlin, where I live, the evidence and fear are everywhere. It’s the talk of the town. Our local beer garden has stopped serving salads, with our waitress apologizing profusely for the “E-Ha-E-Ce Ausbruch.” My grocer has placed several notices by the supposedly offending produce, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers and sprouts, indicating the risk in eating such produce. And at Berlin’s famed market at Winterfeldt Platz, piles of vegetables are rotting in the sun as produce dealers give exasperated sighs and lengthy explanations as to the source of their goods.  And in a bit of gallows humor, a friend has been gloating that he can finally eat all the sausages he wants, because vegetables are going to kill him.
            German newspapers are trying to keep up with the rumor, innuendo, and the latest update on the enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (“EHEC”). Seven killed. Nine killed. Five hundred infected. First Swedish death. Nineteen killed, two thousand affected. Russia ban on all EU produce. 4 Americans contract EHEC. Thirty-one deaths.  First it was lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Then it was Spanish cucumbers from Almería and Málaga. Then it was organic Spanish cucumbers. Then bean sprouts from a farm in Lower Saxony. And now it’s a cucumber found in a compost bin in Madgeburg. Is it an old strain? A new strain? Mutant strain? Is it from over-use of antibiotics? Is it pesticides? Is it from cows? From humans? Is it because of genetically modified foods?
            In Germany, unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know there has been an epidemic of food-borne illnesses caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) O104:H4, the worst being the life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome (or HUS), which compromises kidney functionality.
            The cause is still under investigation, after 5 weeks since the first cases were reported in Hamburg and the northern-German states of Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein. There have been lots of suspects, including that of Spanish cucumbers and bean sprouts, however there has been no definitive evidence as to the exact food source of the outbreak. And one German health official admitted, “…it is possible we shall never be able to identify the source [of the E. Coli].”[1]
            Of course this is not for lack of trying. Since the first case came to German public health officials’ attention on May 2, there has been a frenzied search by German health authorities, hospitals, epidemiologists and scientists across the Germany and the European Union to find the smoking gun. While many countries, most notably the US, have had E. coli scares and outbreaks before, the World Health Organization has even admitted that this particular strain has never been recorded before. And some have even suggested that the scope and the breadth of this particular outbreak may be unprecedented in Europe.
            But the blame game has already begun. German citizens are blaming the Robert Koch Institute (the German equivalent to the US Centers for Disease Control), local health authorities, German Ministry of Health (“Bundesministerium für Gesundheit”) and the German Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (“Bundesministerium für Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz”). German government has blamed Spanish agricultural practices. Spanish government blames Germany’s poor crisis management. France and other member states have blamed Germany and Spain for lack of transparency. Vegetable farmers accuse health officials for libel and lost revenue. US’s CDC criticized the German antibiotic therapies for E. Coli as a catalyst for HUS.
            And sadly, after this episode comes to an end (if it ever does), we may be none the wiser.
            Everyone seems to be missing the point. What is happening here in Germany can and will happen in other places. This is not just about sprouts. Or Spanish farmers. Or government agencies, Or food processors. The whole food system that has to be examined and reformed. If there is anything we can learn from this tragedy is that food systems are no longer local. We have apples from South America; we have shrimp from Vietnam; we have cheese from France. There is no ONE global agency responsible or accountable for the safety of our food supplies. We are completely dependent upon state and local entities to safeguard our food system, but they are riddled with holes: overlapping responsibilities, non-coordination across agencies, agency infighting, competing public and corporate interests, poor enforcement, and no money. No political will. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.[2] [3]
            If anger and indignation were solutions, I’d be a policy genius. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work that way. I do have some concrete suggestions that might prevent future tragedies like this from happening.
1.     Countries need to give food safety and consumer agencies the necessary enforcement power to oversee food production at ALL levels – from farm to fork. This means more money, more agents, more inspections, because right now, these agencies have too little to work with.[4] This is especially true in the US, China and other developing nations with large agricultural trade interests (Brazil, Argentina, Uganda, Morocco, etc.).
2.     There is need for an international agency or consensus on food safety standards with enforcement power. Food distribution chains have become global, however, the safeguards needed to oversee them have not. The World Health Organization and the International Organization for Standardization have given guidelines to food safety, however they are basic in nature and are NOT enforceable. An international agency with enforcement power could monitor food safety issues across borders, instead of depending upon individual countries to safeguard their food supply. Countries have their own political interests in defending their food products – consumers across the world don’t.
3.     There needs to be more transparency in the food system. Period. Consumers should know where their food comes from, how it was produced, and in whose hands it was passed through before it gets to their table. If that means a label, sign or an independent 3rd party inspection, then so be it. Currently, consumers have very little information regarding the pathway from farm to plate (unless they grow or slaughter or gather your own food). In the end, it is the consumer that has to bear the consequences for faulty food safety practices – why shouldn’t they be the first to know where their food comes from?

Food borne illnesses are entirely preventable. Human nature, unfortunately, is not. Let’s stop the blame game. Blame doesn’t save lives. Action and accountability do. Let’s try not to screw it up this time.


[1] See EU Ministers to meet on E. Coli Outbreak, Al Jazeera English, 7 June , 2011. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/europe/2011/06/20116771510528902.html
[2] This is not to suggest that it is all government’s fault. Corporations, agri-business, and multi-nationals are also to blame. But we also have to look at ourselves. Our need for cheap, fast and convenient food has only accelerated a series of agricultural and food practices that contribute to poor food habits – not just food-borne illnesses, but also obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer – the list goes on and on.
[3] And no, this is just not only in the US. EU and EC agencies are just as problematic. Currently the EU Minister of Agriculture is responsible for both safeguarding the agricultural practices as well as promoting their interests in world trade. (For a while there, the EU Agricultural Minister was also a corporate farm owner…conflict of interest?) Many other countries have the same set of conflicts of interests regarding food, agriculture and consumer safety.
[4] Currently in the US, Congress is determining the budget for fiscal year 2012. The Food Safety Modernization Bill, which was passed with bi-partisan support last year, is getting the ax. The Food Modernization Bill is the first major reform of food safety practices since the 1920’s and gives the FDA power to inspect, fine, suspend and recall foreign and domestic food and food facilities that do not meet safety standards. (See my blog post here regarding the history of food safety and the Food Modernization Bill.)
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