Many of us remember the shocking stories that emerged in the late 1980’s during the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Great Britain. During the outbreak of BSE, more commonly known as “mad cow disease”, around 185,000 head of cattle were infected. The human toll was heart-breaking, with approximately 165 people contracting a human variant of the degenerative and ultimately fatal disease. Though most of those affected were limited to Great Britain, the tragedy inspired sweeping changes world-wide to the safety regulations for the care and processing of cattle. Thanks to these changes, outbreaks of the illness have been greatly reduced and confined. Recently, however, a case of mad cow disease was reported in the United States. It has, to date, been limited to a single cow, and stands little chance of causing a wider outbreak. However, this news is an unpleasant reminder that, despite a multitude of regulations, food-borne illnesses continue to be a serious threat to our safety. And sadly, too often this is a result of not just human error, but at times, even criminal negligence.
This spring, the European Union saw one of the deadliest outbreaks of food poisoning ever recorded. The culprit, a new strain of E. coli, confounded doctors and investigators with its surprising virulence and resistance to antibiotics. Even months later, its affects are still being tabulated, with the World Health Organization to date citing over 50 fatalities and over 4,000 sickened. The food-borne illness largely struck residents of Germany, but its victims include citizens from fourteen other countries in the EU, Canada and the United States. Most recently, the death of a 65-year old man resident of Arizona was confirmed as being the first American fatality as a result of the outbreak.