Amid E. coli concerns, military conducting its own risk assessment
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — As German authorities continue their struggle to pinpoint the source of an E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 22 people in Europe and sickened more than 2,200, U.S. military health officials say they conduct their own risk assessment regarding food served on base.
Lab tests conducted so far on 23 of 40 samples of bean sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany suspected as the possible source of the outbreak came back negative for the bacteria, German authorities said Monday. They said the tests on the remaining samples were continuing.
On Sunday, German authorities warned against eating sprouts and also continued to advise people not to eat other raw salad vegetables, in particular cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes.
U.S. military health officials were debating whether to issue their own advisory on bean sprouts. While such a review takes into account findings from German health authorities, “we assess the risk from all sources,” said Phillip Tegtmeier, Europe Regional Medical Command spokesman.
“We have experts that know the potential for danger,” he said. “We can do a very good job of putting together a risk assessment and issuing advisories based on that.”
There’s only one approved Defense Department source for bean sprouts in Europe, and U.S. Public Health Command Region Europe inspects the plant because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed bean sprouts a “high-risk” food, based on a history of generating food-borne illness, health officials said.
Typically, fresh produce is not considered high risk, and most sources of fresh produce in Europe aren’t routinely inspected, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Roque Caballero, U.S. Public Health Command Region Europe food safety officer.
Because bean sprouts are grown in a water base, “there’s a greater opportunity for exposure” to bacteria, since there could be contaminants in the water, said Lt. Col. Chuck Dodd with the U.S. Public Health Command Region Europe.
Some scientists theorize that bacteria can grow inside the sprout, and not just on the surface, Dodd said.
But U.S. military health inspectors don’t routinely test bean sprouts for E. coli — nor are there plans to do so solely because of the current outbreak, Dodd said.
“It’s very easy to have a negative result and a false sense of security,” he said, adding inspectors instead demand high manufacturing standards to ensure food safety.
The U.S. military continues to also advises against eating cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes, Tegtmeier said Monday.
Meanwhile, test results from one of two U.S. servicemembers treated last week in German hospitals for intestinal problems came back negative for E. coli infection. Officials are still awaiting results on the second military member, who authorities said was released from the hospital last week.