In June, a cluster of illnesses that included stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting marked the start of the largest outbreak of E. coli-related illness in 2011. The outbreak was particularly worrisome because the E. coli strain involved produced a nasty toxin, known as Shiga toxin, which can cause kidney failure. The first cases emerged in Germany and soon spread to other European nations and the U.S., ultimately affecting 852 people and leading to 32 deaths. The culprit turned out to be a contaminated batch of fenugreek seeds from Egypt that were used to grow sprouts.
Later in the year, separate outbreaks of E. coli O157 in ground beef and romaine lettuce caused massive recalls of both products in the U.S. Do the outbreaks mean that our food supply is becoming more vulnerable to contamination? That’s hard to say. Our food safety system isn’t perfect, but part of the reason for the seemingly frequent taintings is that our ability to detect cases of contamination has improved.