U.S. produce sales may decline until further information on Europe's deadly E. coli outbreak becomes available

LOS ANGELES , June 8, 2011 () – U.S. produce sales may decline until further information on Europe’s deadly E. coli outbreak becomes available, Bloomberg reported June 7.

Early tests at a Lower Saxony, Germany, organic farm suspected of having produced the tainted sprouts did not find traces of the E. coli bacteria. Sprouts cannot be eliminated as the culprit, though, since traces of the bacteria could have become undetectable, according to James Paton, head of the University of Adelaide’s bacterial pathogenesis laboratory in South Australia.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has reported at least 23 deaths and 2,429 illnesses from the bacteria since the May 2 outbreak, Bloomberg reported.

A hearing on potential outbreaks in the U.S. food system has been requested by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. However, Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said reduced budgets for disease detection and response programs in state and local governments could make probes of U.S. outbreaks difficult.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has put measures in place to prevent suspicious European produce from entering the country, but, according to Michael Taylor, the agency’s deputy commissioner for foods, the U.S. imports very little produce from Europe.

Mark Shamber, CFO of United Natural Foods Inc., said it would be impossible to evaluate consumer behavior until the bacteria’s origin is discovered, Bloomberg reported.

Shamber said United Natural Foods, which sells to companies such as Target Corp., Whole Foods Market IP LP, Costco Wholesale Corp. and Kroger Co., has not yet seen sales decline. However, the company has dropped 5.6% in trading since the day after news of the outbreak became public.

According to Bloomberg, episodes of contaminated foods have in the past resulted in sales drops at food companies whose products were not inducing illness.

Increased labeling on food’s origin should reduce consumer anxiety, according to Jennifer Dennis, associate professor of horticulture and agricultural economics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The primary source of this article is Bloomberg, New York, New York, on June 7, 2011.

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