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E.Coli: Too Many Outbreaks and Not Enough Outrage

11.jan.02, Douglas Powell, The Expositor (Brantford) A6

11.jan.02, Douglas Powell, The Expositor (Brantford) A6
GUELPH - The tragic outbreak in Walkerton, Ont., placed E. coli O157:H7
firmly in the minds of Canadians in 2000. Yet as recent outbreaks in New
Brunswick, involving the death of a young child, Ontario, and most recently
Regina painfully show, what have we really learned?
Have our political and community leaders begun to comprehend that food and
water safety is a primary concern for their constituents, one worthy of a
national action plan, or is it just one of those things to be regarded as an
inconvenience that will, hopefully, by some unknown force, be resolved.
Unfortunately, the most recent outbreaks suggest that, as a country, we have
much to learn.
E. coli O157:H7 is a dangerous, sometimes fatal and usually awful bacterium
to contract. It has killed hundreds of Canadians and thousands of Americans
in the 20 years that scientists have known of O157's ability to cause human
In 1993, E. coli O157:H7 became permanently linked with Jack-in-the-Box
hamburgers in the U.S. Northwest after an outbreak killed four and sickened
some 700; an outbreak that directly or indirectly led to dramatic changes in
meat inspection in the U.S., including much higher levels of public
Food safety became a presidential-level priority.
Many other countries have had their equivalent Jack-in-the-Box moments, an
outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 so horrific that it forced fundamental changes
in the attitudes about food production and handling at all stages, from farm
to fork.
Australia had its with a related bug, E. coli O111 in 1994, when hundreds
were sickened and a young child died after consuming a salami-like fermented
Japan witnessed some 10,000 illnesses and 12 deaths due to O157 in 1996,
perhaps related to radish greens distributed in school lunches.
That same year, Scotland suffered through 21 deaths and 400 illnesses. The
subsequent and widely public investigation by Prof. Hugh Pennington was as
fundamental to the formation of the U.K. Food Standards Agency as the mad
cow disease fiasco.
Canada had its own Jack-in-the-Box moment in 2000 when E. coli O157:H7
killed seven and sickened some 2,500 in Walkerton, Ont. The outbreak went a
long way to shattering some vainful deceits, such as, "I live in Ontario (or
Canada) and therefore my water is clean."
Perhaps we as a country have gotten beyond the complacency that allowed
Frank Koebel to testify to the Walkerton inquiry that, "I was under the
understanding that we had good quality water and in my opinion, if the
chlorinator broke down for a short period of time and we had good quality
water, it wasn't a major issue."
But as recent events have shown, Walkerton has not had the galvanizing
effect on Canadian journalists, public health officials, government, or even
the Prime Minister that outbreaks elsewhere have managed.
Health Canada estimates that some two million Canadians are stricken by food
or waterborne illness each year. More current -- and scientifically valid --
U.S. estimates peg that number at one in four the equivalent would be seven
million Canadian illnesses per year.
But what's a few days praying at the porcelain goddess of foodborne illness?
After all, when dozens of Fredericton residents became ill after a
pre-Christmas turkey buffet dinner, city spokesperson Wayne Knorr was quoted
as saying, "We're not talking about E. coli or anything like that. I get the
impression it was just something bad on the buffet table.''
This in a town that was just recovering from the devastating local effects
of the death of a child and the sickness of others from E. coli O157:H7.
In Regina, where 14 confirmed cases of E. coli O157:H7 have surfaced after a
Christmas party for food service workers, sales at local restaurants have
fallen and residents appear concerned because they were not told the name of
the suspected facility that hosted the event.
While there are public health and liability concerns with pointing the wrong
finger, either the reasons for secrecy need to be better articulated or
And journalists need to ask much harder questions to publicly funded health
officials and politicians.
A number of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses in Ontario in Nov. 2000 prompted the
chief medical officer of health to issue an unprecedented warning in the
vein of recent U.S. security warnings -- we don't know or can't tell you
why, but go to a higher state of alert.
The various medical authorities involved are doing what they can. Any
outbreak is full of unknowns, allegations and contradictory information;
since O157, and many of the other common foodborne bacteria take two to five
days to cause illness, this is expected.
Who can remember what they had for lunch -- in detail -- let alone lunch
five days ago?
But there are several things lacking in the Canadian -- almost polite --
approach to people getting sick from the food and water they consume.
The so-called advocacy groups seem time-locked with arguments that "it's all
that foreign food" or that big is bad, and that a return to small,
self-sufficient farms will provide a nostalgic protection.
Except for outbreaks like the one in August 2001 that sickened five children
with E. coli O157:H7 and was traced to unpasteurized goat's milk from a
co-operative farm south of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, B.C., and dozens of
In Canada, political conspiracy seems to trump basic biology.
The Health Canada report on the goat milk outbreak concludes that, "although
the link between consumption of raw milk and disease is well established for
several organisms, there are still uninformed individuals who persist in the
belief that raw dairy products are healthier, and that pasteurized products
are less beneficial, and even harmful."
In other words, forget the hucksterism on display at your local grocery
store, whether it's organics, fruit and veggie washes, or antibacterial
sprays designed to essentially sterilize the kitchen.
There are pockets of hopeful activity, both provincial and federal, with
farmers leading the way. But there are still too many outbreaks and not
enough outrage.
Consumers, journalists and politicians need to ask more of all components of
the farm-to-fork food safety system.