Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fighting food fears

Jun 11, 2011

FIRST the blame fell on cucumbers, then Germany announced yesterday that new data pointed to bean sprouts as the most likely source of the bacterial outbreak which killed 30 people and made thousands more seriously ill. Two significant conclusions can be drawn from this food scare. Governments should resist the clamour for quick solutions, if these come at the expense of proper scientific analysis. And international cooperation on food safety has to improve.

It is ironic that Europe's latest food poisoning outbreak occurred in Germany, a nation famous for its strict public hygiene. But health responsibilities in the country are split between 16 component states, and that proved to be a handicap. The first cases were detected in Hamburg at the start of May. Inexplicably, it took the authorities two weeks before they raised the alarm; the chance of examining original food samples was missed.

German officials then compounded their error by identifying Spanish cucumbers as the source of the infection, a baseless accusation that destroyed Spain's exports. The trade losses, amounting to about €210 million (S$374 million), will now be shouldered by Europe's taxpayers.

One can sympathise with the plight of politicians, who stand to lose their jobs if they don't react quickly. Still, it behooves governments to tell anxious electorates that there is no substitute for rigorous science, and investigations cannot be rushed by alarmist headlines. Knee-jerk reactions also cost lives: Look at the disputes in Europe during the 1990s about the safety of vaccines for infants, which resulted in a drop in immunisations and a catastrophic increase in diseases such as measles. Preventing a scare from turning into a panic is often a government's only viable strategy.

Nevertheless, it's obvious that, while food is traded globally, international cooperation to ensure its safety remains deficient. Almost all the hygiene supervision is done by nation-states, and sometimes by the same agencies whose job is to maximise food exports. There are no formal international alert procedures for food poisoning, comparable to those which exist for contagious diseases. And too often food scares are allowed to turn into broader political spats, as the 2008 'dumplings war' between Japan and China showed.

Consumers should also be reminded that they play a key role. Simple actions, such as keeping kitchens clean and rinsing fruit and vegetables, could have contained Europe's present outbreak. Ultimately, food safety is not just a matter for governments.

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