The last few weeks have seen another crop of major food poisoning outbreaks, including two spectacularly large events. The standout is a norovirus outbreak in Germany, which affected more than 11,000 people across the East of the country. Most of the victims were children and teenagers and the vehicle of infection turned out to be a single batch of frozen strawberries used to make desserts in schools and other institutions. Meanwhile, at least 950 people in the Netherlands contracted salmonellosis from smoked salmon manufactured at a factory in Greece, with around 100 people in the USA getting infected with the same Salmonella strain – though not necessarily from the same food product it seems. We also have reports on several smaller outbreaks caused by contamination in peanut butter, raw almonds, ricotta cheese, liquid egg white and a so far unidentified food or foods at a restaurant in Belfast.
It would be a big surprise if most or all of these outbreaks didn’t turn out to be preventable. Experience has taught us a great deal about eliminating microbial contamination and the food industry has had plenty of opportunities to learn from its mistakes. For instance, the cases of salmonellosis caused by contaminated liquid egg white are difficult to comprehend, especially as it seems the product was pasteurised. Peanut butter also has a rather undistinguished history as a cause of food poisoning, as do fresh cheeses and smoked salmon. And what about those strawberries and how they became contaminated with noroviruses? Dirty irrigation or washing water looks a likely culprit. I would be prepared to bet that none of the investigations into recent outbreaks will reveal anything genuinely new that could not have been anticipated and therefore prevented.
So if outbreaks are preventable, why do they continue to happen, and why have there been so many recently? It could just be coincidence, but could it also be the first signs of cost cutting by food businesses under severe economic and competitive pressure in a harsh financial climate? I hope the answer to that question is a resounding no, because cutting food safety corners to save a bit of cash is the ultimate false economy for a food manufacturer. Relying on luck to protect the health of customers is no way to do business and sooner or later will end in disaster.