E.coli is a term unpleasantly familiar to people all around the world. Outbreaks of
infection make dramatic headlines whenever they occur – and with good reason.
While some E.coli strains are harmless, the ones we get to hear about are virulent,
debilitating and often fatal.
© Fotolia, 2012
One of the biggest E.coli outbreaks occurred
in Japan in 1996, when 6,000 people became
ill and 17 died after eating bean sprouts
contaminated with E.coli O157. With E.coli
infections increasing worldwide and new strains
expected to keep emerging, this pathogen has
become a major global public health issue.
So it is no surprise to learn that the EU-funded
PEN (Pathogenic E.coli Network) project, set
up in 2007 under the Food Quality and Safety
theme within Framework Programme 6, had a
very simply stated aim: to reduce the burden
of illness related to the E.coli bacterium, in
particular E.coli O157.
The background against which the project
started work was both a daunting and an
urgent one. In spite of considerable past
research, there were still areas where a
fundamental understanding of E.coli was
lacking. Moreover, technical issues and a
lack of harmonisation - between academic
disciplines, between the various elements
of the food-chain, and between continents
- meant that the results of much previous
research had not been put to optimal use.
Meanwhile, the impact of E.coli infections
was all too plain to see. On top of the toll in
lives and human illness, E.coli infections had
economic consequences as well – lost working
days, adverse publicity for the countries and
companies involved, with resulting losses of
tourism, sales, market share and profits.
Co-ordinated by the Irish agriculture and food
development authority, Teagasc, the PEN
project involved 35 international research
groups in a three-year work programme
designed to improve and disseminate
understanding of all aspects of E.coli. These
included its molecular make-up, ways of
detecting it, understanding how it spreads,
assessing how virulent any given strain
may be, and how outbreaks can be better
controlled and managed in the future.
Given the global nature of E.coli, an important
feature of the project was that its 35 partner
organisations were drawn not just from
Europe but from around the world, with
institutes from Australia, Chile, Israel, New
Zealand and the USA all taking part.
Building on this extensive participation, one
of Pens' key successes was the creation of
a single platform to disseminate information
and expertise about E.coli around the world,
for the benefit of everyone involved in the
effort to understand and manage this threat
- from microbial researchers to regulators,
legislators, the food industry and public
health experts. The project went on to develop
science-based risk-management strategies
tailored for use both by farmers and by
the food-processing industry, and provided
information and guidance for public health
professionals and regulators on ways to
detect, assess and manage newly emerging
strains of E.coli.
The legacy of PEN is clear. By bringing together
such an eminent and multidisciplinary group
of researchers from around the world, it
resulted not only in far greater understanding
of the scourge of E.coli. It also – just as
importantly – provided an efficient way of
disseminating that information, for the benefit
not just of European but of global food safety
and public health.
As the Japanese incident and countless others
have demonstrated, when E.coli outbreaks
occur, swift and effective action is vital. Today,
thanks to PEN, the world is better placed than
ever to meet that challenge.