There are important lessons to be learned in the United States from the recent eruption of foodborne illness in Germany -- which has turned out to be the deadliest E. coli outbreak ever -- according to a food-safety expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

More than 3,300 people have been sickened since the outbreak began, including nearly 800 with a serious complication that can lead to kidney failure and death. German health officials finally were able to trace the illness back to bean sprouts grown on a farm in northern Germany, but not before at least 39 people died.

It's a sobering example of how vital it is for health officials to be able to trace food back to its origin on the farm when an outbreak of foodborne illness occurs, said Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science. LaBorde conducts extension programs that train farmers to use "good agricultural practices" (GAPs) aimed at preventing contamination in products such as sprouts, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

"The German officials simply were not able to trace the outbreak back quickly enough to determine where it started and what food was involved," he said. "That's why so many people got sick."

"The seeds that producers buy for growing sprouts can be contaminated without any indication that they are unsafe to use," he said. "So they are just going to continue using that seed until someone tells them, 'Hey, that is making people sick.'"

LaBorde said the new federal food-safety law recently adopted in this country contains provisions that will enable scientists and government food-safety agencies to quickly trace foods back to their origins on the farm.

Now, every package or container of produce must include information about where a food product was grown or created. And because contamination can happen in processing, transport and storage, information about those also are logged and preserved, LaBorde pointed out.

In retrospect, he's not surprised that sprouts were determined to be the cause of the German E. coli outbreak. "We've known for a long time that sprouts can be a problem," he said. "The seeds may become contaminated by bacteria in animal manure in the field or during post-harvest storage."