Published on: September 4, 2008As reported earlier this week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is saying that the recent salmonella outbreak, which caused more than 1,400 people to get sick, appears to be over … even as new reports emerge about an E. coli outbreak connected to an Oklahoma restaurant that has sickened more than 200 people and killed at least one person. The exact cause of this latter outbreak has not been determined, though it is fair to assume at some point that it will be, and that health officials will say that it, too, is over.
However, the definition of “over” may not be what most people assume it is.
The Washington Post reports that the CDC and other medical experts are finding that a number of chronic illnesses could have their roots in episodes of food poisoning, some of which took place years ago.
According to the story, “Campylobacter, a bacterium associated with raw chicken, is now recognized as a leading cause of the sudden acute paralysis known as Guillain-Barré syndrome. Certain strains of salmonella, the bacterium involved in the recent outbreak in Mexican raw jalapeño and serrano peppers, can cause arthritis. And E. coli O157:H7, a strain of an otherwise harmless bacterium that lives in animal intestines, can release toxins that cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a kidney disorder that in 25 to 50 percent of cases leads to kidney failure, high blood pressure and other problems as much as 10 years later.”
The Post notes that there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness in the US each year, resulting in between 5,000 and 9,000 fatalities – though the vast majority “experience it only as an unpleasant bout of diarrhea or abdominal pain.” But there are emerging opinions that some of these pathogens could have long-term impact on afflicted consumers, though for several reasons listed by the Post the issue is hard to study:
“First, it is tough to prove a link between some of these illnesses and later chronic conditions such as arthritis. Second, despite annual outbreaks across the nation, the subject hasn't attracted much public attention or funding … Also, federal health-care privacy laws make it difficult for researchers to approach anyone who is not in their direct care.
“To get around the last of these problems, STOP (an acronym that stands for an organization called Safe Tables Our Priority) is setting up a national registry of victims of food-borne disease who would be willing to participate in longitudinal studies. The registry could help researchers determine, for instance, how frequently food-borne infection leads to chronic health problems and what role factors such as genetics play in who develops them.”
- KC's View:
- Beyond the obvious medical issues, what this story points out is the fact that food safety issues cannot be minimized as mostly just the cause of a few stomachaches. There seem to be much broader and more long-term implications, both for consumers and for the credibility of the industry charged with feeding a nation. Trust becomes a much more fragile component of the shopper-retailer relationship, and the industry has to be vigorous to do everything possible to forestall further erosion.