The recent EHEC outbreak should not cast any doubts over organic farming methods
The epicentre of this crisis was Northern Germany, where most people were infected. This crisis has caused huge upset and uncertainty, there have been many damaging accusations made at various vegetables and sources. Let’s have a look at the facts so far.
In early June, after much investigation, German authorities stated that mounting epidemiological and food-chain evidence indicated that bean and seed sprouts (including fenugreek, mung beans, lentils, adzuki beans and alfalfa) are the vehicle of the outbreak in Germany. (WHO/EU, June 2011) Health authorities finally traced the pathogens which caused the deadly EHEC outbreak to sprouts grown at an organic farm in the Uelzen district. According to the Spiegel Newspaper the breakthrough was made by scientists in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Final verification, however, is still pending. (Spiegel, June 2011) As it remains unclear how the dangerous bacteria came to be present at the farm. The organic farm in Uelzen is situated about 100km (62m) south of Hamburg, the epicentre of the outbreak. The farm produces bean sprouts including adzuki, alfalfa, broccoli, peas, lentils and mung beans, all grown in a nursery for consumption in salads. Since this news broke, the methods used in organic farming have been accused for being at the root of this tragic outbreak.
The farm's general manager, Klaus Verbeck, was quoted by the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper as saying that he could not see how the organic farm was to blame. "I can't understand how the processes we have here and the accusations could possibly fit together," said Mr Verbeck. (bbc news, June 2011) "The salad sprouts are grown only from seeds and water, and they aren't fertilised at all. There aren't any animal fertilisers used in other areas on the farm either."
Typically this particular strain of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) is normally transmitted through faeces or faecal bacteria. Contact with animal faeces including petting zoos is a common source. (German Organic Agricultural Movement, June 2011) Since animal manure was not involved in any of the farming methods used at the farm in Uelzen the manner in which the bacteria arrived at the farm is still unknown. According to Dr. Stephen Smith, a microbiologist at Trinity college Dublin, "E. coli can stick tightly to the surface of seeds needed to make sprouts and they can lay dormant on the seeds for months, during germination the population of bugs can expand 100,000 fold.”
He goes on to say "However, and this is probably the key to the German outbreak, the bacteria are inside the sprout tube as well as outside. Thus washing probably had no effect. The bottom line is that it is crucial to source where the seeds came from and recall any stock." (BBC news June 2011) In this case it would appear that due to the nature of how the bacteria presents itself in the sprout seeds that both organic products are generally no more or less vulnerable then conventionally cultivated vegetables. (German organic agricultural movement, June 2011).
In recent days it has also emerged that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have linked a batch of fenugreek seeds grown in Egypt to the outbreak. They have even gone so far as to ban the import of these particular “sprouting seeds” from Europe (BBC news July 5th).
The EFSA stated that the actual contamination of the seeds reflected "a production or distribution process which allowed contamination with faecal material of human and/or animal origin". However where exactly this contamination occurred is still not clear.
It is also important to note that this is not the first time sprouts have been identified as the root cause of an EHEC outbreak. According to the Spiegel newspaper, sprouts have caused outbreaks of E. Coli in Japan in 1996, where over 12,680 people became ill and 12 died after being infected by radish sprouts. Twin outbreaks in Michigan and Virginia in 1997 were caused by contaminated sprouts traced back to the same batch of seeds originating in Idaho. Two outbreaks in Colorado and Minnesota in 2003 were also blamed on the seeds of sprouts.
One US study has even suggested that an alarming 1.5 percent of all alfalfa sprouts sold are contaminated with EHEC. There can be up to 10 million bacteria in just one gram of the vegetable. An investigation by the BfR even revealed that the bacterial count on sprouts could increase a hundred-fold up to the expiration date, despite further refrigeration. (Spiegel, June 2011).
This evidence suggests that it is the bacteria carrying capacity of sprout seeds that is the problem not the methods used to farm them. This conclusion is echoed by the recent statement by the IFOAM EU Group which underlines that it is neither appropriate nor responsible to use the present outbreak of enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) to blame any farming method. EHEC is not a problem of a specific production system and any farming methods can potentially be affected.
However they are deeply concerned by the outbreak and are determined to ensure a future outbreak is prevented. The IFOAM EU Group expresses its deepest sympathy to all those affected by the outbreak of these deadly bacteria and supports the efforts of the authorities in identifying the cause as rapidly as possible. The number and seriousness of the infections makes research into the cause of the outbreak and preventive measures most urgent. We at the AgriCultures Network support the statement made by the IFOAM. We also share their concern and sympathy for those that have been affected by this outbreak.
- EHEC outbreak: Update 22. Who/EU. 23/06/11
- E. Coli Outbreak Scientists'Find EHEC Bacteria at Sprout Farm' 06/10/2011 Spiegel Online
- E. coli outbreak: First German sprout tests negative. BBC News. 07/06/11
- E.coli: IFOAM EU welcomes EU support but asks for EU wide coordination. Statement International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements – EU Regional Group 1 (1) Brussels, 07/06/2011 [PDF]
- EHEC infection. Statment from German Organic Agricultural Movement. 05/06/11 [PDF]
- E. coli: EU bans Egyptian seeds after fenugreek link BBC News 05/07/11
- EFSA publishes report from its Task Force on the E. coli O104:H4 outbreaks in Germany and France in 2011 and makes further recommendations to protect consumers EFSA Report 05/ 07/11
Text: Ellen Naughton