Is the UK’s E.coli outbreak a sign of worsening food safety standards?

Posted: 17 June 2024 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott shines a light on the ongoing E. coli outbreak in the UK and shares why he believes “better diagnostic tools” could support food safety standards.

Chris Corner Feature

The on-going outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli food poisoning, or STEC as its commonly referred to, has been well reported across many media outlets. At the time of writing this article over 200 cases have been reported and over 40 percent of the affected have had to be hospitalised. The number of both will likely increase unfortunately.

There are many questions being rightly raised about the outbreak not least “What is the source of the STEC?” But before I dive into this, it’s very important to add some context around the outbreak.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimated that around 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur every year in the UK. The current outbreak is a tiny proportion of this number. Many of the reported cases were found to be linked with one another by the application of a diagnostic tool known as Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) which allows for much more precise tracking and identification of the causative organism involved in outbreaks. This in turn allows for faster response measures to be implemented by regulators and industry.

The number of cases of STEC reported in the UK each year fluctuates around the 1,000 mark but there is no evidence of an increasing trend thankfully despite our rising and aging population and the ever increasing complexity of our national food supply system. This points to an industry that works very hard to ensure that our food is safe to eat and in spite of the drastic funding cuts to Local Authorities who are the de facto police of our food system.

But clearly something has gone wrong and the race to find the cause and source of the outbreak is in full swing. Various government agencies and the food industry are working very hard to find these answers. It was always very likely that an RTE (Ready to Eat) product or products would be implicated as STEC is thankfully killed on cooking. This was born out by the fact that the source was likely to be related to an ingredient present in sandwiches and salads.

We consume an amazing 8 billion of these each year in the UK so finding the culprit ingredient is still akin to finding a needle in a haystack. How the government agencies attempt to do this is through trying to track and trace what the affected individuals have consumed over the past one to two weeks and then looking for some commonality. This is known as epidemiology and can take a significant amount of time to undertake rigorously and is not an exact science.

Episode 53: A conversation with the FSA Part 1

In the present outbreak the culprit has been hopefully identified by the epidemiologists as salad leaves though again, at the time of writing no STEC has actually been found in any ingredient tested. Yet there is a large voluntary and precautionary recall of over 60 different RTE products occurring across the UK. We can only hope that the measures put in place will halt the outbreak and that the exact source of the offending foodstuff can be identified. The next step after this will be to determine why the contamination had occurred and why the measures routinely used to mitigate against pathogens in salad ingredients e.g. stringent washing failed in this case.

STEC was once virtually always associated with meat products, especially beef but this is no longer the case. The food system has become more complex and crops can become contaminated though dirty irrigation water, run off from livestock farms, insufficient sanitary conditions for those who harvest crops and many other causes.

I often write about my concerns of reduced food safety standards in the UK as a result of under-investment by the government and Brexit. But in this case I think it’s around better diagnostic tools being applied and a one off systems failure in a manufacturing facility.  I do wonder if the cause of the incident will ever be definitively identified but I’m sure many technical teams right across the UK and looking very carefully into their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans to make sure they remain fit for purpose in an ever-challenging food systems environment. 

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