Knowledge is a powerful food safety tool
The world looked on in shock as the German food poisoning crisis unfolded earlier this year, leaving more than 50 people dead and hundreds of people with serious and potentially lifelong health complications. After intensive investigations the German authorities determined that a particularly virulent strain of E. coli, STEC O104, in bean sprouts was the cause of the outbreak there.
Because food can – and occasionally does – cause grave harm to people that eat it, we as the food safety regulators have to continually seek out the most up-to-date science and information to ensure we are well equipped to deal with a potential foodborne illness outbreak here in New Zealand.
At MAF we are privileged to have got an involved science fraternity that we can draw on to ensure the best advice and help is available when specific issues arise, or in emergency situations. Our Food Safety Science Academy in particular provides us with access to a wealth of external technical expertise and knowledge, and these are people who are familiar with our core business.
To ensure we in New Zealand are well equipped to detect and deal with a major incident involving an existing E. coli STEC or the emergence and spread of a new variant, MAF – with the help of Massey University – recently brought together Academy members and researchers from around the country with an active interest in STECs.
It proved to be a very useful round-table discussion. We were able to consider areas where New Zealand specific research is needed or new laboratory methods have to be developed for specific types of STECs.
General consensus was that New Zealand is already taking a proactive approach to gaining a deeper understanding of STECs.
Epidemiological investigations to date do not indicate that food is a primary source. Other possibilities include occupational exposure and water. The risk factors for human illness in New Zealand are currently being sought in a year long human case control study and the results will be used to review controls currently in place.
MAF has worked closely with the Meat Industry Association over many years evaluating the presence of and means to control STECS when they do occur on red meat and is currently co-funding a PhD study to further that work. This research is examining the presence of STECs on-farm and what happens when animals leave the farm and are transported and processed at the slaughterhouse.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank the members of the Academy – as well as the other scientists who make themselves available on a case-by-case basis. Their help enables us to respond to issues using the best science available at the time.
Presentation papers from the STEC roundtable will be made available on MAF’s food safety website shortly.
Published in Food NZ, October 2011