Effective traceability systems are key to avoiding a repeat of the drawn-out E.coli crisis, where the German food industry lost control to health authorities, according to a crisis management expert.
Tony Hines, head of food security and crisis management at Leatherhead Food Research told FoodProductionDaily.com: “In many ‘incidents’ the food industry is the first to know. In this case illness and hospital presentations came first."
The E.coli outbreak that killed 48 people in Germany and 15 in France was traced to imported Egyptian fenugreek seeds, used to grow sprouts at a farm in Lower Saxony.
Said Hines: "In crisis management planning and management, we normally suggest that a manufacturer needs to retain a degree of control of the incident. In this case control passed to the health service.’’
Recent outbreaks of listeria traced to cantaloupe melons from Colorado in the US were another good example, Hines added, similarly complicated by the fact that consumers sometimes ate melons a month before symptoms appeared.
Food safety threats
Hines was reacting to a recent Berlin speech by European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) executive director Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, who warned that the EU was especially vulnerable in terms of food safety.
“Europe is the biggest global trader in food products, and the openness of the European market leaves us particularly vulnerable to food safety threats,” she said.
A single food product could contain ingredients from across the world, Geslain-Lanéelle said, many of which were produced to non-European standards.
Hines insisted that traceability of food ingredients was vital to effective crisis management: “Where you get raw material from, what you make with it and where you send it to, is not only a legal requirement but instrumental in root-cause incident management," he said.
"The linking of Egyptian fenugreek seeds to illnesses in Germany and France will be a case study for future crisis management professionals for decades to come."
Under EU law, 'traceability' means the ability to track any food, feed, food-producing animal or substance that will be used for consumption, through all stages of production, processing and distribution. This allows authorities to trace risks back to source.
In recent addresses to the food industry, Hines said he had emphasised the damage caused to the industry by the fact that health professionals knew about the incident long before the food industry.
“The investigation, equivalent to a multi-victim murder drama with of very ill patients has attracted worldwide media interest, speculation, reputational damage, claims for compensation,” said Hines.
To make matters worse, when patients fell ill the evidence chain had also gone cold, he said.
Good crisis management
Together, these factors represented: “everything you do not want in good crisis management”, Hines added, where traceability of a “long-forgotten short shelf-life product” was at issue.
However, the German crisis was difficult to handle becuase of the gestation of the illiness and its indentification, Hines said, with a patient stricken with E.coli first feeling unwell 2-10 days after consuming the food, then visiting a doctor or hospital 72 hours later.
Samples were then taken, said Hines, and identified as a specific, rare strain of E.coli with lethal virulence and antibiotic-resistant genes.
“[But] during this time your condition has worsened, talking and thinking are difficult and you can barely recognise your family, let alone remember what you ate 14 days ago or where,” he said.
Cases multiplied and alarm bell rung, said Hines, while “false leads and a range of suspects from salad leaves, bean sprouts and cucumbers are all in the frame.”
He added: “Laboratory results fail to identify root cause. All the while with a casualty list is growing and ‘presenters’ are still appearing at doctors’ surgeries and emergency departments."