Analysis of emails suggests E coli bacteria cannot be used as a reliable source of hand hygiene, researcher says
A leading journalist has said food poisoning outbreaks in the Dominican Republic after a shipment of spud shipments had E coli bacteria in them is a public health disaster.
“I haven’t seen this level of coverage anywhere else,” said Ivan Cerdani, the head of anti-corruption news website El Nuevo Dia, who analysed emails between officials from the CDC, the food safety agency, and seed manufacturers Carrefour and Cavite.
So what did the email messages say?
These email exchanges indicate that the spud packages were transported to the Dominican Republic in US-bound shipping containers, in September 2017.
They tell how the US Food and Drug Administration, which examined the container cargo at the Puerto Plata port, sent letters to its Spanish counterpart dated 14 August saying they saw “suspicious bacteria” in the Spaghetti-Onion and the Mini Potato (Crick-White).
The email references a request by a top health official in the Dominican Republic, Alvaro Alvarez, to US customs to get the potatoes, due to arrive on 20 August, “provisionally exempted” because they contained E coli (Staphylococcus aureus).
The FDA sent its letter on 13 August saying there was evidence of E coli and asked that the letter be circulated to the Dominican Republic authorities, but no action was taken.
This raises an important question, says Cerdani:
Why wasn’t the good faith with US inspectors informed to the foreign authorities?
Did the US get the packets banned because of improper documentation?
Or was the US government protecting US export business by blocking shipments of contaminated food products?
The FDA did not respond to a request for comment from El Nuevo Dia.
With E coli outbreaks of Atrio lactio coli spreading throughout Asia, there is increasing interest in the possibility of using the bacteria as a source of hand hygiene, because of the possible spread of the bug into food-packaging material and preparing raw foods.
But Cerdani insists this approach is not a solution.
“You can’t put the problem of bacterial infection, especially with microbiologists, in the hands of food producers who are not in the business of testing for E coli,” he said.
“In most cases, they are able to show a good quality of production. They don’t always meet the standards of certification of food or animal welfare but the quality is not always bad and this is because they can establish that they follow the correct practices.”
In recent years food producers have also used other pathogens that are more easily acquired than E coli, he said.
“It is the same problem that was seen during the [2008-9] H1N1 flu outbreak when very often it was seen in these canned shrimps in American supermarkets. There are people who have never eaten meat that come to the market and they are selling them.”
He added: “Everything is getting more complex now. It’s not a simple problem.”
Cerdani has several criticisms about the local media’s coverage of the E coli outbreak.
He said the local press seemed to blame the victims for eating the spud and they failed to ask why the spud was not being tested for E coli before it was sent to the Dominican Republic.
“Most of the articles with only one sentence talk about fear and tension with the E coli outbreak in the Dominican Republic.”