Could it Happen Here and If It Did What Would Be the Consequences: The Case of Fresh Produce?

by Prof Chris Griffith

This article continues the theme, found in the previous three articles, of cross contamination and its importance however this time it examines its application  to the fresh produce sector in South Africa and the possible consequences of an outbreak

Food exports, particularly the fresh food sector are of significant economic importance to South Africa, are labour intensive and employ skilled and unskilled workers.  If we apply the title of the article to this food sector we do not have to go far to  look for answers to  the first and second parts of the question. This year has seen what may turn out to be the costliest food poisoning outbreak ever and it involved fresh produce.  The impact of the E coli O104:H4 outbreak that  initially occurred in Northern Germany but also involved a smaller outbreak in France started in May and  continued through June and July 2011 and was felt by food industries around the world. Although already extensively researched it is likely to be the focus of many  more studies over the next few years. The victims were primarily from Germany although cases were reported in 13 other European countries as well  the USA and Canada. The final statistics for consumers involved may never be known but the total  number of victims is over 4000, with more than  50 deaths, nearly 1000 cases of HUS (one of the complications of some E coli infections) which will result in the need for over 100 kidney transplants. Before final identification  of fenugreek seeds as the culprit over 5 different  foods were implicated, resulting in import bans and the destruction of large quantities of “innocent foods”, especially cucumbers, and  produce from “innocent countries “. As a consequence some businesses went bankrupt and claims for millions of  euros in compensation have been submitted. The final cost, taking  into account future medical bills has been estimated to be in the order of $4 billion.

With the help of both German and EU laboratories, governmental surveillance and investigative facilities and the assistance of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) the outbreak was eventually managed and controlled. Without  their concerted  support  the source may never have been traced and the outbreak could have been more prolonged and widespread. Certainly an outbreak in South Africa would not have been able to draw on anything like this level of public health assistance and would have  had devastating results on the local food industry.

Although the E coli that caused the problem has been described as a new strain  it has close links with one causing an outbreak in the USA in 1994  and one causing an outbreak in  the Republic of Georgia in 2009  and  scientific papers have already been published on how it has been evolving. This illustrates two key points –how quickly  and maliciously microorganisms  can evolve and how they  spread geographically, and there is no reason  why a similar scenario could not happen in South Africa.

This type of outbreak should not come as surprise with fresh produce being implicated worldwide in outbreaks caused by a range of microorganisms and  further confirms the need to take strict hygiene precautions with fresh produce. Fresh produce is not “naturally” contaminated with this type of pathogen and prevention of produce cross contamination before and after picking is required.  Even at the time of writing there is an ongoing outbreak of E coli in Oregon in the USA linked with strawberries . Already 18 people are ill , with consumers purchasing the strawberries from supermarkets, farmers markets and road side stalls. Although more frequently linked with lettuce,  spinach, celery and other salad items,  a range of berry types (of particular importance to the Cape region) have been implicated  in outbreaks involving a range of pathogens and this needs to be considered in the design of food safety management systems

In summary producers need to employ the highest hygiene standards , especially as there is no equivalent kill step to the one in cooked meat processing or the dairy industry  (washing produce can have an effect but has a much more limited efficacy  than thermal processing).  It is difficult to ensure compliance with hygiene requirements in any food sector,  especially  with the topics mentioned in the previous two articles –cleaning and hand hygiene, but the problems can be magnified in the picking and processing of fresh produce.

Returning to the title, yes it could happen here and the consequences could be devastating both for an  individual business, the fresh produce sector and for the country. So fresh food producers in South Africa please take note.

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