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Media reports ramp up coverage of E. coli outbreak in Europe

by Joan Murphy | June 03, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. produce industry is hoping that European authorities can quickly identify the source of a massive outbreak tied to virulent form of E. coli, which is becoming the most deadly outbreak on record.

The European outbreak has now become the focus of U.S. national news stories during the 24-hour news cycle, just weeks after Germany began reporting people infected with the virulent, drug-resistant form of E. coli not seen in U.S. foods.

German authorities first pointed the finger at Spanish cucumbers but have stepped back to say a few produce commodities are suspected and that people should avoid eating raw vegetables in the region.

As of June 2, the World Health Organization reported that 1,823 were sickened by the rare E. coli strain, with 18 dead and 552 suffering from kidney problems. Fifty-six new cases were reported between May 31 and June 2. While 12 countries have reported cases, nearly all have connections to northern Germany, where the outbreak is the most severe. Four cases in the United States involve people who recently traveled to Germany.

“It’s a devastating outbreak,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, based in Newark, DE. “Everyone wants to know the cause, but the fact is we just don’t know.”

Ms. Means said that she knows no reports of U.S. produce sales being affected in light of the media coverage, and she stressed that very few produce commodities are imported from Europe during this growing season.

But the produce industry should monitor the fact that a new E. coli strain has emerged in Europe, and the latest ourbreak is a reminder that everyone needs to have a good food-safety program and produce traceability measures in place, she said.

“It’s very important to get it traced back so the right restrictions are made,” she said. “Then there will be discussions of what this means.”

The Food & Drug Administration said during a June 3 press conference, that U.S. food-safety officials are in constant contact with European authorities, who are focusing the investigation on cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes based on epidemiological studies.

One reason for the delay in pinpointing the cause is it's hard to separate these items because people often eat these foods together.

But the FDA officials reassured the public about the safety of U.S. foods.

“Produce remains safe and there’s no reason for Americans to alter where they shop, what they buy or what they eat," said David Elder, FDA’s director of regional operations. “The U.S. food supply is not in jeopardy.”

As a safety precaution, the FDA has increased surveillance of cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes from Spain and Germany.