“Super Toxic” E. Coli Outbreak Highlights Problems with Labyrinthine Supply Chains

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Eve Mitchell, Food & Water Europe, emitchell(at)fweurope.org, +44 (0)1381 610 740
Darcey Rakestraw, Food & Water Watch, drakestraw(at)fwwatch.org, +1 202-2683-2467

“Super Toxic” E. Coli Outbreak Highlights Problems with Labyrinthine Supply Chains

Statement from Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Europe

BRUSSELS and WASHINGTON - “The E. coli outbreak in Europe, which researchers have called ‘entirely new’ and ‘super toxic’, exposes that much still must be done to understand the risks posed by the industrialized food system. Produce supply chains connecting farmers to consumers have lengthened and now may stretch around the world, mixing a large volume of products of many farms together, shipping them over long distances and using new technologies to extend shelf life.

“Food markets have consolidated into the hands of a few large corporations that deal in tremendous volume. Larger volumes and longer supply chains, in turn, make trace-back more difficult and put a larger number of consumers at risk if there is an incident of microbial contamination somewhere in the system. The E. coli outbreak in Europe shows just how hard it can be to pinpoint where things go wrong in such a labyrinthine system.

“In their investigation, regulators should examine all steps in the supply chain, since the opportunity for contamination is not isolated to where crops are grown. The washing, packing and processing of produce, as well as temperature controls during shipping, should be considered.

“We also encourage the regulators to consider the implications of scale. While small and diversified farms are not risk-free, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the management practices common to smaller, biodiverse and conservation-oriented farmers are a net benefit to food safety. As regulators respond to this outbreak and reconsider food safety regulations, food safety concerns must be integrated with organic production and other conservation goals.

“Finally, they must conduct the research needed to understand the risk. Much more research is needed to gain a thorough understanding of the sources of microbial contamination in produce. Scientific evidence finds that cattle, particularly those that are fed grain, are the most significant source of some strains of E. coli and that flies from cattle feedlots may serve as a major vector for E. coli contamination on leafy greens. The practice of feeding livestock antibiotics for growth promotion has increased the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens like E. coli, and with it, related food safety risks.

“We hope that this food safety crisis helps regulators realize that smaller, regional food systems have many benefits to human health, and that the solution is to create supply chains that make it easier to identify where food production and distribution problems occur. Food technologies like irradiation are no substitute for good information on how and where food production problems go wrong. The struggle to identify the source of the contamination also reinforces the need for adequate funding and resources for public health investigators at all levels of government, as these are the people on the front lines of responding to illness outbreaks.”

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Food & Water Watch is a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food. We challenge the corporate control and abuse of our food and water resources by empowering people to take action and by transforming the public consciousness about what we eat and drink.

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