Texas Tech Expert: Officials Observing Closely European E. coli Outbreak

Sophisticated procedures are in place to reduce the likelihood of consumer exposure.

Three Americans who recently traveled to Germany have become sickened by what officials believe is the E. coli infection that has killed more than a dozen people, sickened thousands of others and caused serious illness in 470 – all of whom are either German residents or have visited the country in recent weeks.

Texas Tech University food safety expert Guy Loneragan said the outbreak of E. coli O104:H4 centered in northern Germany is being taken very seriously by public health officials, scientists and food producers around the world.

“The strain causing the current outbreak is a close cousin of E. coli O157:H7 but has only been observed very rarely in the past,” Loneragan said. “People typically become infected with these types of bacteria, called shiga-toxin producing E. coli (or STEC), through food and sometimes are part of a food-borne outbreak. It is assumed that in the current outbreak, people were infected via food. The initial epidemiological investigations suggest, although not definitively yet, that people were likely infected eating raw salad products.”

“There are several patients outside of Germany who have been affected, including some patients in the U.S., but almost all recently traveled to northern Germany and were likely infected there,” Loneragan continued.

“It is unclear why this STEC O104:H4 is causing such a large outbreak when it has never been observed in an outbreak in the past. It may be that the bacterium has mutated thereby allowing it to spread more widely in the food producing or processing environments, or the environmental or sanitary conditions in the place where the food contamination occurred were favorable for this rare bacterium to spread. The investigation continues and we hope that they quickly discover the source of contamination and reasons for the contamination.”

Over the past two decades, U.S. public health agencies, food safety regulatory agencies and food-producing industries have developed sophisticated procedures to reduce the likelihood of consumer exposure to STEC as well as provide early detection and mitigation of outbreaks. All are keenly watching the current outbreak and reevaluating existing strategies to help ensure the safety of the American food supply.

Loneragan can be reached during the weekend by email at guy.loneragan@ttu.edu or on weekdays at (806) 742-2805.

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