Europe’s E. Coli O104:H4 Outbreak: Facts And Lessons

e-coli-O157-h7.jpgAlthough the story’s been in the news for nearly two weeks, I’ve hesitated blogging about the outbreak of E. Coli O104:H4 contamination in Europe because it seemed like every time I turned around, there was some new update rendering the previous theories and hypotheses null and void.
At this point, it seems that this much is clear. According to the latest Bloomberg report, tainted food products carrying the O104:H4 bacteria have caused at least 23 deaths in Europe and poisoned 2,429 others, 674 of them seriously.
The “index” (earliest) cases of the outbreak occurred around May 2, but it was not until May 22 that public health authorities acknowledged that we had had a full-fledged outbreak on our hands.
Although initially it was suspected that cucumbers might be the source of the outbreak and, later, it was thought to be bean sprouts, experts from the World Health Organization insist that we don’t know the vector of the contamination and might never know.
“If we don’t know the culprit in a week’s time, we may never know,” says Dr. Guenael Rodier of the WHO. According to Dr. Rodier, the food products that caused the outbreak have likely disappeared from store shelves, making it harder to link patients with the source or sources of the contaminated food.
The Centers for Disease Control reports four Americans have been sickened by E. coli O104:H4 within the past several weeks, all of whom had recently traveled to Germany and all of whom are believed to have suffered the food poisoning there. The CDC have issued a travel warning to Americans traveling to Germany.
The E. Coli O104:H4 strain that is ravaging Germany is not the same strain of E. Coli that has hurt so many American consumers. The strain of E. Coli food poisoning that first popped into American consciousness with the Jack-in-the-Box epidemic in 1993 and that continues to be a recurring problem in the American food supply chain is E. Coli O157:H7. The two different strains, however, are both capable of causing massive kidney failure leading to death or permanent disability.
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about two different approaches to protecting consumers from injury: government regulation and private tort lawsuits. We’ve discussed one problem with relying on government regulation to protect us – that regulatory bodies are susceptible to “regulatory capture” by the special interests they are supposed to regulate.
It seems the regulatory approach is especially inadequate within the European Union, where competing national interests and cross-border limitations on investigators may make it difficult to combat outbreaks such as the present one. As one American public health official, Dr. Michael Osterholm, has said, “If you gave us [American public health officials] 200 cases [of E. coli poisoning] and five days, we would be able to solve this outbreak.” Osterholm went on to describe the European effort as “erratic” and a “disaster,” saying that German officials should have done more to interview patients in the early days of the outbreak. Instead, German officials leveled an accusing finger first at the Spanish, then at the French.
Given the way the Germans have handled this outbreak, you have to wonder whether it’s simply incompetence or whether there are political forces at play that have hindered the investigation.
At any rate, let’s hope that public health officials manage to track down the source of the E. Coli O104:H4 outbreak and that E. Coli O104:H4 does not make its way into the American food supply.

This blog in maintained by the Boston foodborne illness & contamination lawyers at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C.