Monday, July 11, 2011


The controversy surrounding the recent E.coli episode in Europe refuses to die down and even now no one is sure about the exact cause of this unfortunate incidence. First Spain was blamed as the source of this deadly bug which shattered the industry in that country causing huge economic damage in the process. Later a sprout producing industry in Germany was suspected to be the culprit though the investigators were not 100% sure about their suspicion. Then came the accusation that Fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt contained the bug which manifested in great numbers during sprouting. Theories were even floated as to how the bacterial cells can adhere to the seed coat resisting removal during washing. Is it not a pity that with all modern gadgetry and technological prowess Europe possesses, the source of contamination still remains untraced? Such a dangerous situation does not augur well for the future as consumers are left to the mercy of pathogens that sneak into the food chain undetected claiming precious human lives.

What contaminated the sprouts in the first place is still under investigation. It could be tainted seeds, water or nearby livestock. On Friday, health officials announced they had determined the source of the contamination was sprouts from a farm in northern Germany. They tracked the bacteria's path from hospital patients struggling with diarrhea and kidney failure, to restaurants where they had dined, to specific meals and ingredients they ate, and finally back to a single farm. Investigators claim it was little surprise that sprouts were the culprit. They have been blamed in least 30 food poisoning cases over the past 15 years in the U.S. and a large outbreak in Japan in 1996 that killed 11 people and sickened more than 9,000. Growing conditions for sprouts and the fact they are eaten mostly raw make them ideal transmitters of disease. Cultivated in water, they require heat and humidity — precisely the same conditions E. coli needs to thrive. Scientists say E. coli can stick tightly to the surface of seeds used to grow sprouts and they can lay dormant for months. Once water is added to make the seeds grow, the bacteria can reproduce up to 100,000 times. Last week I criticized some opinion writers in the national media for laying the blame for such E. coli outbreaks at the front gate of modern livestock production. It's a rush to judgment, though I admitted last week that livestock manure may be the original source of the European contamination. Irradiation is the process of exposing food to ionizing radiation to kill bacteria such as E. coli. It also destroys a host of other contaminants such as viruses and insects.While many pundits seem eager to vilify livestock production, they don't seem nearly as interested in telling the American public that technology has a solution for much of our E. coli contaminations. It's called irradiation, and it's currently underused.

One has to concede the point that such frequent pathogen causing epidemics would not have taken place if world had agreed unanimously to the use of gamma radiation technology which remains languishing with no takers! Emergence of High Pressure Processing technology (HPP) provides another means to control microbial contamination in finished products though it could be some what more expensive. Cold foods like salads which cannot be heated will have to be cold processed to maintain the eating quality and safety and unless there is a serious rethinking on adoption of irradiation technology more widely, consumer will have to live with periodic food poisoning episodes with scary consequences.

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