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Consumption Recommendations to protect consumers from EHEC

15/2011, 09.06.2011

From a scientific point of view BfR considers observance of kitchen hygiene rules and consumption recommendations to be necessary

Vegetables are not only rich in vitamins and fibres but contain also other valuable ingredients. With a diverse, varied diet, which is rich in vegetables, the risk of diseases can be reduced. Tomatoes, cucumbers, salad, sprouts and germ buds are currently under the suspicion of being carriers of the EHEC outbreak germ. At present many consumers are insecure because they are to do without part of healthy and normally safe foods. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has, as an independent scientific institution, the task of issuing recommendations for action on the basis of its scientific risk assessments. It did so immediately in the current outbreak event together with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and upheld its view so far based on existing scientific data. "If a situation occurs in which the infectious source has not yet been unequivocally identified, observance of kitchen hygiene rules is the best direct protection of consumers and their families from an EHEC or HUS infection", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "As soon as these temporarily necessary consumption recommendations are set aside because of new scientific findings, we recommend the consumption of all products available on the market without any reservations."

Our diet should be, as far as possible, varied, diverse and balanced so that the supply of all necessary substances is ensured. Vegetables are a central constituent of our diet since they are rich in valuable ingredients. People who eat a lot of vegetables contract less often cardiovascular diseases, obesity and diabetes. In raw vegetables the content of valuable ingredients is as a rule highest, but also caring preparations such as stewing and steaming result only in a minor loss of the substances. This applies of course also to tomatoes, cucumbers, salad, sprouts and germ buds.

Normally these foods are safe. In an outbreak event there can, however, be a necessity to issue consumption recommendations for a certain period of time in order to protect the population from diseases. The current EHEC outbreak is the largest bacterial outbreak in Germany since World War II with the so far most severe, partly irreversible clinical course as well as many severely diseased and several fatalities.

Already small amounts of germs are sufficient for an infection so that a transmission is very easily possible. Based on the current infection outbreak, BfR and RKI continue to recommend for reasons of health protection of consumers to refrain from consuming non-heated vegetables which are suspected of being an infection cause (tomatoes, cucumbers and salads) and were purchased in northern Germany, pending the clarification of the precise outbreak cause. The Ministry of Agriculture of Lower Saxony had communicated that sprout products from a horticultural farm in the district of Uelzen are highly suspected of having spread these EHEC germs. Consequently, the consumption recommendation currently also concerns sprouts and germ buds.

BfR bases its consumption recommendations exclusively on scientific analyses and the ensuing health assessments. The scientific criteria can be based in this respect on results from laboratory tests or, as in the case of the current EHEC outbreak, results from case control studies. At present there is a reasonable suspicion that the mentioned product groups could be infected by EHEC. For that reason BfR considers immediate and clear consumption recommendations which it continuously verifies with its scientific committees and publishes in a transparent manner for the protection of the health of the population as appropriate and necessary to minimise the individual infection risk.

If scientific findings change, BfR immediately adapts its consumption recommendations to the current developments. This is the case if findings from food tracing and tracking allow a narrowing down of the infection sources or if a clear decline in new cases allows for the conclusion that the infection source no longer exists. As a rule, foods which are available on the market have a high quality and are safe.

Consumption recommendations are state measures. They have to weigh the proportionality principle. The health protection of consumers has, as a matter of principle, priority over economic interests. A recommendation must always be formulated in such a way that it is providing comprehensible options for action without causing inappropriate conduct. In the current outbreak event a ban on goods would not have been proportional since the pathogen had not yet been detected. If the pathogen is, however, detected in or on a vegetable, this food is no longer safe and hence no longer marketable. This case has, however, not yet occurred in respect of the current event.

The federal authorities issue, in co-ordination with the competent Land authorities a warning or, as in this case, a consumption recommendation if the institutions of the federal authorities are involved by the Land authorities in an outbreak event or if a warning or recommendation appears to be relevant. As soon as a consumption recommendation and/or warning is set aside based on current scientific findings and no scientifically founded restriction is necessary any more, BfR recommends to consume all products, i.e. also tomatoes, salad, cucumbers, sprouts and germ buds again without restriction and with enjoyment.

About BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. BfR engages in own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.