Salmonella Thompson, a century of difference?

It so happened that I stumbled upon a fascinating story dating back to July 1924, about a farmer named Thompson, living near Guisborough in Yorkshire (UK). Back then, food processing was mostly a matter of doing-it-your-self, as apparent from the three small rabbits that were shot on the farm, and served as ingredients for a Sunday supper pie. It must have been a large pie, since all fourteen persons, I presume from the same household, who ate from it came down with gastro-enteritis. From a feces sample of one severe case an almost pure culture of Salmonella bacteria was obtained. Two years later the scholar W.M. Scott proposed to call this strain “The Thompson type of Salmonella” in his manuscript (J Hyg (Lond). 1926 November; 25(4): 398–405). I’m not sure whether the Guisborough farmer or his family were aware of the Salmonella naming in their “honor”. But certainly there is no way that anyone in this family, nor W.M. Scott himself, could have anticipated the magnitude of their “Thompson” type of Salmonella outbreak that would occur almost a century later in The Netherlands.

In the summer and autumn of 2012, an outbreak of Salmonella Thompson in The Netherlands was linked to contaminated smoked salmon. More than 1000 persons were reported to have fallen ill and 3 deaths were linked to this outbreak. Most certainly, none of these 1000+ victims caught their salmon meal themselves, like farmer Thomspon did with the rabbits he and his family consumed in 1924. The implicated salmon originated from Norway and was processed in Greece for a Dutch fish producer, before being distributed in supermarkets and food stores in The Netherlands and some other countries.

It is beyond doubt that our food supply chain has become extremely complex, but food safety measures have come a long way since 1924 as well. Still, In those days an outbreak of salmonella gastro-enteritis would typically affect “ only” a dozen or less people from one or more family living nearby. Despite all the technological improvements the food processing industry has gone through and the numerous national and international laws installed to keep our food-chain safe, the impact of food-borne infections nowadays seem more extensive. This is clearly illustrated by the 2012 Salmonella Thompson outbreak in the Netherlands and certainly by the 2011 E.coli O104:H4 outbreak in Germany that affected almost 4000 people in at least 15 countries!
While almost every aspect of current food processing has changed for the good compared to 1924, our contemporary food supply chain still demands no-nonsense measures to prevent and control food-borne infections. In light of current highly complex food chains, infection control policies certainly need to be more effective than in 1924: as the story goes, farmer Thompson cleaned and cooked his rabbits the same day he shot them under impeccable domestic cleanliness…..

Category : Blog

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