Food safety comes to the fore again as new study builds on growing evidence that foods of animal origin, contaminated with Escherichia coli, can lead to urinary tract infections in women.
The latest research from Penn University in the US found that E.coli strains, isolated from patients with UTIs, were genetically related to E.coli strains from cows in the collection of strains at the Gastroenteric Disease Center.
About eight to ten million people are diagnosed with urinary tract infections each year. One of the most common infections in women, they affect one US woman in five during her lifetime.
A rise in global food production, processing, distribution and preparation has led to growing pressure on the food chain to minimise outbreaks of food borne diseases.
In industrialised countries, the percentage of people suffering from foodborne diseases each year has been reported to be up to 30 per cent.
And in the US, for example, around 76 million cases of foodborne diseases, resulting in 325,000 hospitalisations and 5,000 deaths, are estimated to occur each year.
Sixty-one deaths and 73,000 illnesses - such as bloody diarrhoea and hemorrhagic colitis - are blamed on eating foods contaminated with E. coli each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We found out that UTIs may be caused by ingesting food contaminated with E. coli," said Dr. Chobi DebRoy, director of Penn State's Gastroenteric Disease Center.
The researchers found that the E.coli causing the UTIs matched genetically with a sample of E.coli obtained from an animal source.
They used E.coli samples collected over forty years from the centre to match up the bacteria causing UTIs with bacteria found in animals.
The researchers tested E.coli samples from dogs, cows, sheep, water and turkeys.
The researchers then compared the samples genetically to the UTI causing bacteria; they found that a sample from a cow matched well with the E.coli found in humans.
In addition, opening the door to possible prevention from foodstuffs, the researchers found that the E.coli causing the infections is resistant to antibiotics.
Growing evidence suggests the North American cranberry (vaccinium macrocarpon) can help combat UTIs by reducing the adhesion of certain E.coli bacteria to the urinary tract walls.
So convincing is the evidence, in April 2004 the French food authority AFSSA approved a health claim for cranberry juice and powder and its effect on urinary tract health, the world's first health claim for the fruit.
This latest study underlines the vulnerabilities that still exist in the food chain, and its interaction with the human system.
Seeking to minimise human exposure to potential hazards in the food chain, Europe has introduced a raft of new safety measures in recent years.
The latest entry, enforced last month, slots into the European framework regulation EC/178/2002 laid down in January 2002, and hinges on traceability of food and feed.
While food firms have always been under the legal obligation to ensure that all food in the chain is safe, the new rules now formally require that they notify the local authorities should a food or feed withdrawal from the market arise.
"This guidance should be read in conjunction with the Food Safety Act 1990 (Amendment) Regulations 2004 (No. 2990) and the General Food Regulations 2004 (No. 3279)," the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) said in a statement in January.
Reflecting the new traceability rules the UK's FSA has set up a rapid access channel for food and feed businesses to signal the food agency about any new product withdrawals from the market.
The number of food-linked alerts in the European Union leapt by over 40 per cent in 2003 on the previous year, with the majority sourced in the 'old' member states.
Food makers operating in today's climate have no choice but to implement rigorous food safety tools, from machinery to staff training, into their daily costs.
But putting a price on food safety is 'frankly impossible' because it is totally integrated, says Francois Perroud, a spokesperson for number one food maker Nestle.