Increasing cattle numbers blamed for Irish people contracting potentially fatal strain of E-coli

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Claire Fox

Claire Fox

Increasing cattle numbers are a major factor in Irish people contracting a strain of E-coli that is potentially fatal, with rates of the food-borne disease 10 times higher here than the rest of Europe, leading health professionals have warned.

Dr Alan Reilly, advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and former CEO of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, told the Farming Independent that the latest European Food Safety Authority report shows that this country has the highest occurrences of verotoxigenic escherichia coli (VTEC), which lives in the gut of cattle and can be transferred through their faeces to humans either through direct contact or through food consumption.

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The report showed that the average European rate of VTEC is 1.27 per 100,000 people in 2015, compared to Ireland's rate of 12.92 per 100,000.

Dr Reilly pointed out that Ireland's "astronomical" rates of the strain are due to our expanding cattle density, which is causing animal faeces through slurry spreading to be recycled into the food system, which is then digested by humans.

"We are the largest exporter of beef in the Northern Hemisphere. We have increased slurry spreading, which is causing these infectious pathogens to be transferred in to rivers and streams and into our food," said Dr Reilly.

"The water in irrigation systems used in horticulture and vegetable production can also transfer VTEC to the food, and that's what happened last summer in Ireland during the drought last year when we had over 200 cases."

Dr Reilly said symptoms of the disease include bloody diarrhoea and that it can sometimes lead to kidney failure, which means patients are on dialysis for the rest of their lives - and if it is not detected in time, it can be potentially fatal.

"When contracted, this is very serious," he said. "In 1996, I was part of the World Health Organisation team that dealt with over 11,000 children in Japan who contracted VTEC from eating radishes in their school meals, and 12 of them died.

"A total of 855 cases of kidney failure and 2,987 cases of bloody diarrhoea without kidney failure occurred in Germany in 2011, including 53 fatalities. Some of these cases still require kidney dialysis."

Investigating

Dr Reilly said French authorities are currently investigating an E-coli outbreak linked to cheese after young children developed kidney failure in the last month.

The 13 cases of kidney failure that developed are believed to be due to the VTEC infection and have occurred in young children since March 21. The patients are from various regions in the country.

Dr Reilly believes curbing cattle numbers to reduce instances of the disease would be the final solution to combating VTEC and that better land management is needed at farm level to prevent slurry run-off into rivers.

"A natural barrier needs to be built against slurry run-off such as reed bed treatment, and anaerobic digestion facilities need to be developed to detoxify the slurry," he said.

"I'm worried that there is no one biting the bullet on this, it's about time that the Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Health sat down on this."

HSE public health consultant Dr Ina Kelly also called for more joined-up thinking between agriculture, the environment and health departments.

"Collaboration is a must. Policies need to be set by government; this isn't farmers' fault but health isn't being considered in agriculture policy at all. Ireland has a perfect storm of conditions of risks for VTEC to occur and increasing cattle numbers are a real reservoir for infection.

"We're on a completely different scale to the rest of Europe."

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