Our readers in Europe may well be aware that a severe foodborne bacterial outbreak of E.coli has been impacting northern Germany and has many health officials concerned.  As in other incidents of this kind, the outbreak has important supply chain implications.

The E.coli outbreak which is believed to have started three weeks ago, is centered in the area of Hamburg Germany, and has spread to nine other European countries as well as the United States.  Thus far, 17 deaths have been reported with over 1500 sickened, 470 of which involve troubling complications of kidney failure. Virtually all of the sickened victims had one thing in common, they recently traveled in Germany. The strain of bacteria is one not seen before and is particularly virulent, as indicated by the current severity of sickness and potential death. The head of surveillance for the European Center for Disease Prevention (ECDC) indicates that health experts are shocked by the degree of cases and suspect a ‘huge contamination’, probably from raw vegetables.

Germany’s health officials suspect from various interviews held thus far, that the infection may stem from either raw cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce. They are now frantically tracing the agricultural supply chains of retailers, distributors and farms to determine the potential root causes of the infection.  As Supply Chain Matters has observed in similar outbreaks in the U.S. , potentially contaminated product can exist in the supply chain for weeks or months  before infection patterns emerge, and it may take additional weeks to discover the source since many stages of the supply chain will have to be inspected and investigated.  Then again, the sheer scope and suspected localized nature of this particular outbreak may help authorities to discover the suspected causes more quickly. Supply Chain Matters joins others in the hope that the cause can be discovered sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, various European countries are suspecting other countries’ produce as the potential source, and that in turn has led to various finger-pointing exercises among countries such as Germany, Spain and Russia.  Consumers are being asked to avoid eating certain raw vegetables while some countries are instituting outright bans.

Incidents such as this one continue to raise awareness as to whether the food industry, and especially agricultural producers  have taken adequate measures to self-police themselves to potential causes of infection that occur throughout individual supply chains. As consumers reel from the litany of disturbing events such as the one now occurring in Europe, the call for more regulation and supply chain traceability will only widen.

We will continue to monitor the supply chain implications of this outbreak. In the meantime, please share your comments and observations regarding this troubling outbreak in Europe.

Bob Ferrari