Each week, Death by Science gets on its hands and knees and crawls around, searching the dark world of science and technology. Often terrifying, sometimes humbling, our discoveries will make you call your best bud and go, “Wha–?” This week, we examine why Germany’s E. Coli outbreak has been so deadly.
Close your eyes and think back to 1997. It was a simpler time; Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack” was heating up Discmans everywhere and Leonardo DiCaprio was “on top of the world” in Romeo + Juliet. Bill Clinton became — wait a second, how are you reading this with your eyes closed?
You may remember an E. Coli outbreak in Colorado that sparked a massive food recall that, at the time, was the largest in history. Hudson Foods was forced to recall 25 million pounds of beef after the crisis. Newsweek calmed the panicked masses by printing a picture of ground beef on its cover with the headline, “Can This Meat Kill You?”
The death toll of this catastrophic, civilization ending contamination: Zero.
While there have been notable outbreaks that proved fatal (four children died in 1993 from meat sold at Jack in the Box and a three-year old girl suffered the same fate in 2001 after eating contaminated watermelon at a Milwaukee Sizzler), American food and health organizations have managed to control these incidents relatively well with a combination of technology and thorough investigation.
That’s the beauty of America: we may not have the faintest idea of how many unlicensed guns are on the streets, but if there’s something wrong with a cheeseburger, we’re all over it.
Germany, our glutton-in-arms, is in the throes of an E. Coli outbreak so heinous that their largest news magazine, Der Spiegel, calls it “an embarrassment for a nation famed for its economic prowess and efficiency.”
The aggressive, mutant strain of the bacteria has caused (at the current count) 27 deaths and German officials appear clueless. While they are confident the majority of cases started at a large wholesale food market in Hamburg, a series of miscues and wild goose chases have put any hope of finding the specific origin in doubt.
Germany’s meticulous bookkeeping is famous; individual mechanics at their automotive plants sign automobile engines after building them. How does such an organized nation make such a mess of a public health scare?
Quite frankly, they’re just not any good at investigating foodborne outbreaks.
America has registries where samples of gastro-intestinal infections are analyzed and stored. These databases are checked by the CDC daily to pinpoint any potential outbreaks.
In 2006 this integrated network, called PulseNet, caught two clusters of infections in Oregon and Wisconsin roughly a week apart. Alarm bells went off and investigators mobilized to conduct an investigation that led them to believe that fresh spinach was the culprit.
Within 24 hours every newspaper in the country was warning consumers to avoid bagged spinach and every cable news network had ominous spinach theme music cued up to play during their reports.
Within two weeks the E. Coli-tainted spinach was traced to three counties in California and the crisis was quelled. Three people were killed but cooperation between the CDC, FDA and other organizations prevented a more widespread outbreak.
According to reports, the current German outbreak’s first patient came down with the symptoms of E. Coli ingestion around May 1. The Robert Koch Institute (their equivalent of the CDC) didn’t raise an E. Coli alert until May 19.
Unlike in America, suspected outbreak-prone bacterial infections in Germany aren’t entered into a constantly updating, computerized database. They are reported once a week (on the third workday, if you want to be exact and moronically bureaucratic) and the state then has another week to run tests and report it to the Robert Koch Institute.
It’s like taking a cab to the airport, renting a car and driving to an ambulance instead of just calling 911.
Weeks passed before a proper investigation could begin. Upon interviewing the patients who hadn’t lost consciousness, investigators assumed they found the culprit: Spanish cucumbers sold at the wholesale food market in Hamburg.
Tests on the cucumbers were positive for E. Coli, but it wasn’t until more people became sick that they discovered the bacteria causing the outbreak was a different, nastier strain than the one present on the cucumbers. Over 2,000 people were reporting symptoms by this time. The strain was so aggressive, a third of the patients suffered complications that could cause kidney failure. Dialysis wasn’t doing much and doctors were forced to resort to expensive, experimental drugs.
The importance of halting a bacterial outbreak as soon as possible was (and still is) becoming clearer by the minute.
Meanwhile, merchants at Hamburg’s wholesale food market were obviously unable to sell produce and many sold off their remaining stock to be used as fertilizer or biogas, effectively destroying all evidence.
Researchers may never discover the cause of this outbreak, but it is clear those 19 days between the first patient’s initial symptoms and the sounding of the E. Coli alarm were far too long.
We asked Douglas Karas of the FDA if Germany has reached out for help in containing the outbreak. He said the FDA offered assistance and their German counterparts responded by asking them to “provide copies of [the FDA’s] regulations and guidance documents related to some fresh produce products.”
Many of those regulations can be found online. What type of produce caused the outbreak, however, may never be known.
The five most terrifying things in science this week (in a very particular order):
5) Apple’s new headquarters
Steve Jobs wowed the Cupertino, California city council this week with his proposed 3.1 million-square-foot doughnut-shaped structure that will host Apple’s nearly 13,000 employees. The mayor and other council members couldn’t stop gushing about this revolutionary, eco-friendly structure. Barring any major unforeseen events, Jobs’ headquarters is sure to be built. Silly Cupertino, failing to read an Apple product’s terms and conditions. Hopefully your citizens will enjoy logging 20-hour shifts at the Genius Bar and getting paid solely in iTunes gift cards once the zoning board clicks “Accept.”
4) Copycat galaxies jackin’ our steez
Scientists photographed a passing galaxy named NGC 6744 and said it was “almost a picture postcard” of our own galaxy. Listen, we were cool when NGC 6744 got into State and we gave them our ID to use at bars, and we didn’t mind when it started hanging out with our buddies and copying our pinwheel outer clusters of stars. But coming just 30 million light years away from us? It’s getting creepy, NGC 6744.
Apparently, we’re entering a “jellyfish boom,” and these opaque fuckers aren’t just being gross, they’re messing up the food chain, gathering in groups of 500 million and sinking massive ships. Thanks to overfishing, these gelatinous jerkoffs are growing to preposterous sizes and going apeshit in the ocean without anyone sticking up to them. We would try, but jellyfish are terrifying; they killed Queen Latifah in Sphere.
2) Cow Shit
Scientists have struggled to find an effective method to measure the methane produced by cows, but a new test monitoring the molecule archaeol found in their shit may come close. Archaeol is an indicator of the powerful greenhouse gas, and by observing its presence in the waste of cattle that eat feed and comparing it to grass-fed dookies, researchers hope to find a correlation between cow poop and global warming. If this cause-and-effect exists, then climate change will kill us all; ain’t nobody stopping cows from shitting.
1) Two new elements acting like they own the periodic table
Scientists have discovered two new elements, creatively named “114” and “116.” These aren’t even naturally occurring elements; researchers just smashed bunch of calcium and plutonium atoms together and noticed a few things they’ve never seen before. Worst part is, they don’t even hang around: “Atoms of 114 disintegrate within a few seconds, while 116 disappears in just a fraction of a second.” Hey scientists, next time you get bored and start smashing shit, leave it at that. No one wants to buy another periodic table, those things are expensive.
Nick Greene isn’t a professional scientist, but he tries really hard. Follow him on Twitter!