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Avoiding misconceptions

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IT wasn't exactly planned that way; in fact, it wasn't planned at all. However, the human disease outbreak associated with Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) in Germany began just a few weeks before the UK Food Standards Agency's ‘Food Safety Week’, which took place from June 6 to 12. The outbreak has certainly underlined the importance of the underlying message of Food Safety Week, an annual awareness-raising exercise which this year focused on food hygiene in the home.

Somewhat ironically, the outbreak also comes hot on the heels of an EU conference on managing crises in the food chain (VR, June 4, 2011, vol 168, pp 578–579). As a result, it has served to highlight the significance of some of the issues discussed at the conference, particularly with regard to communication, while also demonstrating that, when it comes to handling food scares, countries still have much to learn. Along with the salmonella in eggs scare in the UK in the late 1980s, the ‘E coli in salads’ scare in 2011 has shown that the economic consequences of food safety scares can be out of proportion or even unrelated to the actual risks to consumers. The frustration of producers whose businesses are affected is understandable, particularly when, as in this instance, the source of the outbreak is uncertain and the problem seems not to have been related to the salad vegetables originally implicated. The difficulties may have been compounded by problems in identifying the source and there is always a need for openness where food safety is concerned, but the incident clearly holds lessons for the way uncertainty and the results of ongoing investigations are communicated.

The outbreak has also served to illustrate the speed and extent to which people and diseases can travel. Most of the cases of haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and bloody diarrhoea caused by STEC have occurred in Germany, with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reporting last week that over 700 cases of HUS and over 2300 cases of STEC had been reported in Germany between May 2 and June 11. However, additional HUS and STEC cases linked to the outbreak had been reported in several other EU and EEA countries, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

Meanwhile, the likely involvement of contaminated plant material in a human disease outbreak involving a bacterium more normally associated with animals and people clearly demonstrates the need for a multidisciplinary, ‘one health’ approach to safeguarding the food chain.

In a press release accompanying a ‘fast track’ risk assessment published last week,* the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) notes that, ‘While the overall prevalence of vegetable contamination with STEC at EU level is very low, there is a growing number of reports in the international scientific literature of STEC outbreaks associated with vegetables, particularly sprouting seeds and green, leafy salad vegetables.’ Discussing mitigation options, the risk assessment confirms existing advice on the importance of following good agricultural practices and good manufacturing hygiene protocols as laid down in international guidelines, before and after harvesting, as well as drawing attention to the application of HACCP (Hazardous Analysis and Critical Control Point) principles in the fresh fruit and vegetable industries. It also refers to advice on good hygiene practices in catering and in the home.

This brings us back to the FSA's Food Safety Week and its messages concerning food hygiene in the home. The results of a survey commissioned by the FSA to mark the event suggested that misconceptions about what constitutes good hygiene, and whether or not food is safe to eat, abound. More attention needs to be devoted to ensuring that sound advice is available in this area, in a form that is easily understood by the public and can be readily taken up.

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