An E. coli outbreak traced to the American restaurant chain Chipotle, has led to the temporary closure of 43 Chipotle Mexican Grill places in the United States Pacific north-west states of Oregon and Washington. This is the third time this year that the restaurant chain has had a problem with its food safety protocols and food handling.
An Oregon Public Health Division official told the Associated Press yesterday that it was likely caused by contaminated produce.
Health officials reported over the weekend that E. coli, traced to meals purchased from Chipotle stores in the Portland, Oregon area and several counties in Washington State from October 14 to 23 had sickened at least 22 people. None of the people admitted to area hospitals have died, but many of them have been listed in critical but guarded condition.
Washington and Oregon public health officials have since amended their numbers to 37 sickened by E.Coli bacteria from contaminated food served by Chipotle.
A Chipotle spokesman told the Associated Press the company had decided to close all of its stores in Oregon and Washington “out of an abundance of caution”, after health officials had informed them of the situation. The spokesman said that so far only customers who ate food from eight of those restaurants had reported becoming ill.
Four years ago, in the said United States an outbreak of listeria food poisoning claimed the lives of 13 people, making 72 more sick in 18 states. This attack was eventually tied to contaminated cantaloupes by the US Centres For Disease Control (CDC).
Against the background of this latest public health crisis in the United States, I revisited the subject once again regarding Barbados and in general the rest of the Caribbean, because this was not the first time health alerts had been raised for contaminated foods. Is there a mechanism in place that monitors our food imports and institutes a health screening?
Is there a process in place that ensures, when a health outbreak occurs in one of our food import-supplying countries, resulting from contamination, that cross checking of our imports is done to confirm food safety and purity? Who monitors all of the locally produced jams, jellies, pepper sauces, drinks and other products for food production safety of the consumer? Who conducts tests to ensure that all of the imported fruit meets the required health standards for consumption?
Do you know that the practice of spraying certain fruits to give the impression of freshness is still going on? The debate on whether the material used is safe for human consumption is still raging in scientific and health professional circles.
The answers I have received four years later on this matter suggests there has been some improvement. First, while there are no official legislative mechanisms that mandate examination of fruit imports, regardless of the importing country, there has been, however, significant revision of the administrative regulations that oversee agricultural monitoring at all ports.
Fruit coming into Barbados for local consumption from any suspected country will be subject to thorough rigorous tests, or the importer will be required to provide proof of accepted health quality. However, what must at the same time be understood is that unless an alarm is raised, contaminated food imports can still enter the country unnoticed.
Local meat and poultry production on the other hand is strictly monitored; and the abattoir falls under Government regulations for worker safety and production handling quality. However, for some unknown reason, the same still does not appear to apply for other locally produced food products.
A laboratory testing specialist noted that there were many areas in food production and monitoring that still needed the passing of new legislation or the revision of existing laws to make the job of lab workers easier. The specialist said that even though Barbados could boast of a high quality of locally produced products, the mechanism for guaranteeing comprehensive high standards was not in place, and that it was only a matter of time before “all hell broke loose” as
a result of a contaminated item ending up
on the plates of local consumers.
The specialist further added that one of the greatest concerns was the inability to access the required legislative mechanisms that would ensure that all food products met a required standard, where protocols were in place that would ensure the instituted standards were constantly being met.
In the specialist’s opinion, there is a risk with every bite taken. This comment was made in reference to other food-borne health challenges such as salmonella, which may be more evident at times in the region. It was noted that this was an area in which poor hygiene standards were among the most common of contributing factors.
I also spoke to some attorneys-at-law about this issue and was told any consumer could initiate a legal action if a product consumed by them was proved to have been the source of any illness experienced. They also said that some of the more common complaints recently evidenced were of finding items in some food and drinks, and even
in products received from fast-food outlets and some restaurants.
They said that a common practice was the apparent reimbursement or compensation of the individual with a year’s free supply of the product, or both. But this, they added, was still not resolving the problem of ensuring continuous quality, as no one was officially monitoring the production process.
There is a growing demand for food safety information at the international, national and local level, especially where restaurants are concerned, as the patron is seldom ever privileged to see how the ordered meal has been prepared, and/or informed where the original raw materials came from.
Utilizing the five principles of the World Health Organization in all aspects of food handling, including commercial and domestic production, can successfully improve food-handling hygiene. What has to be done by governments and health and safety advocates is the more intense proliferation of the message, and the introduction of regulations and appropriate standards, which will ensure that all areas of food production are ever prepared in a safe and healthy environment for any and all consumers.
Outbreaks of the type that is occurring in Oregon and Washington State has not yet occurred in the region. That may be due to the fact that there are no large restaurants of the size of Chipotle, but that does not mean the risk does not exist. As ironically stated by the laboratory testing specialist, size does matter, in that there is a very high possibility of systems failure where multiple-location restaurants are concerned . . . .
Something is going to fall through the cracks, and what usually does is one, or more, of the elements that pose a threat to good health.
The danger that lies in the kitchen is one of the greatest, because it is the first contamination source often overlooked when blame is to be placed for the outbreak of an illness. Beware what you eat and where you get it from?