1995 E.coli outbreak highlights food safety

In South Australia, an E.Coli outbreak among people who had eaten contaminated Garibaldi metwurst killed one four year old child and put 24 other people in hospitals, leading to a new focus on food safety. Many victims are still suffering long-term health effects. Their damages claims dragged on in the courts until 2010.

E.Coli 0111 is a special gut bacterium which produces a potent toxin.  The bacteria are commonly found in the intestines of livestock and have the potential to contaminate meat during the slaughter process. If people eat contaminated meat or dairy products that haven’t been properly cooked or processed they can become infected.

E.Coli can multiply in the intestines producing the toxin and causing diarrhoea. The toxin can then be absorbed into the bloodstream where it attacks the kidney and cells lining the small blood vessels. It can be fatal.

Metwurst is not cooked but is produced by a fermentation process, using a starter culture. The fermentation process has been described as a “battle between good and bad bacteria”. If it is not properly controlled the “bad” bacteria can remain in the product, causing food poisoning.

Four years before the 1995 E.Coli outbreak, Garibaldi had been implicated in a previous episode of food poisoning. However, after a conference with South Australian Health Department officials, the company was not prosecuted. Garibaldi hired a microbiologist and promised to put quality control procedures in place.

These clearly proved inadequate. In 1995, it took some time for health officials to pinpoint the source of the outbreak. The first case was hospitalised on 31 December, 1994 but did not cause undue alarm. By mid-January several more cases were detected and warning letters were circulated to GPs and hospitals, saying a meat product was suspected to be the cause. Initially, the uniquely South Australian sausage, Bung Fritz, was suspected.

Garibaldi’s product was then identified as a possible source of the infection and the company took steps to withdraw their metwurst from sale. On 1 February, a four-year-old child died. As a result of the E.Coli outbreak Garibaldi ceased trading and a new focus on food safety saw changes in food processing and handling throughout South Australia.

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