Learning from the EHEC crisis

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Conclusion of the EHEC epidemic: Improved crisis management required

The EHEC crisis last year made it clear that coordinated cooperation between all actors at the federal and state levels is imperative in order to quickly tackle such threats to the health of the population. Communication also plays a crucial role, not only to protect the population, but also to avoid economic damage from unjustified accusations.

The “Task Force”, which was put together in the wake of the EHEC crisis and was made up of experts from the federal government, the federal states and the European Food Safety Authority was able to convince with results relatively quickly, but the EHEC crisis was already in full swing by the time the expert group started its work . The Federal Government is therefore planning to draw up an emergency plan that, in the event of comparable crises, provides clear guidelines for convening a "Food Safety Task Force" with experts from the federal and state governments, Bernhard Kühnle from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture said in Berlin on Tuesday.

Task Force helped identify the source of the EHEC pathogen
After more and more people showed the typical EHEC symptoms in early summer of last year, the feverish search for the causes began. The task force set up by the EU, the federal government and the federal states made a significant contribution to the fact that fenugreek seeds from Egypt were ultimately identified as the source of the EHEC infections. The previously unknown EHEC pathogen O104: H4 was apparently imported with the seeds. This special strain of Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) is particularly aggressive and relatively often leads to serious complications in the course of the disease - the so-called hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). A total of 53 people had died from the consequences of the EHEC infection last year, around 4,000 were ill, including more than 850 from HUS.

Emergency plan to manage food crises
In order to better handle such crises, the federal government is now planning to set up an emergency plan for the management of food crises. At the conference of consumer protection ministers in autumn, decisions will also be made about future crisis management, with the “Food Safety Task Force” working from now on according to clear rules, explained the Department of Food Safety at the Federal Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Bernhard Kühnle. According to Kühnle, the federal and state governments are currently planning to sign a corresponding agreement. The emergency plan is not only intended to provide clear guidelines for setting up the task force, but also to determine who will go public with information in the federal and state governments and at what time. This was one of the main weaknesses of crisis management in the EHEC crisis last year. Although the information must be passed on to the population in a timely manner, this should always be done consistently.

Consumption warnings are always a tightrope walk
Various consumption warnings in the individual federal states - like the EHEC epidemic 2011 - are not effective and only cause uncertainty among the population, explained Kühnle. Although the Ministry of Consumer Protection still considers the warnings given at the time to eat cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce to be correct, the type of communication met with considerable criticism. Sales of the suspect products had plummeted and plunged manufacturers into a severe financial crisis. In the further course it turned out that it was not tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce but fenugreek sprouts behind the EHEC epidemic, but "the consumption recommendations are always a tightrope walk, if you are still in the investigation", emphasized Kühnle. Kühnle explained that the affected producers were also granted compensation, although the funds made available at EU level have not even been fully used up to now. (fp)

Also read:
Symptoms of an EHEC infection
No antibiotic at EHEC
Further EHEC infections in Hamburg

Image: Markus Wegner / pixelio.de

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