Food-borne pathogens are like a Hydra in their tenacity: it seems that every time one outbreak is contained and treated, three more rise up in its place. This week it’s E. coli rearing its ugly head in the news as the illness toll for an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the St. Louis area rises to 30 confirmed cases while the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) scrambles to locate the source of the outbreak.
Food Safety News reports that the first instances of the St. Louis outbreak were recorded in late October. While there have been no deaths related to the outbreak as of yet – relatively good news, considering the dangers involved with this particularly malicious strain of the E. coli bacteria – at least 22 have been sent for treatment at hospitals, and at least one case of related hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) has also been reported.
What’s more: North Carolina is also in the throes of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, with up to 24 cases reported and symptoms beginning mid October. Arapahoe County Jail in Colorado is also experiencing some E. coli O157:H7 of its own, with six inmates confirmed as suffering from the strain and as many as 14 more displaying symptoms.
State fair food is being eyed as the culprit for North Carolina’s E. coli outbreak, while St. Louis residents are pointing to salad bar food from Schnuck’s grocery stores as a possible starting point. But could the two – as well as the Colorado jail outbreak – be related? Unfortunately, no one has an answer yet: despite help from the FDA and over 50 food samples tested at the Missouri State lab, DHSS has not been able to uncover a clear lead on what caused the St. Louis outbreak. The department also stated that they don’t expect that the still pending lab results will bring up anything of interest.
The good thing is that all signs point to the outbreak topping out around here with relatively mild results compared to similar outbreaks like the one in Germany so few months ago. So why is this story important then? Because it highlights the importance of safety standards before food products make it to consumers. In some cases, tainted products are easy to locate and recall. In others, however, origins can remain a mystery – leaving communities helpless to let the outbreak run its course. This is just one more illustration proving that caution will trump apologies and corrections every time, and that maybe – just maybe – our current food safety standards need to be not repealed, but improved.