The Bacterium That Ate a Continent: What E. Coli Is Doing to the E.U.

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Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images

Members of the Robert Koch Institute investigate an organic farm that was identified as a possible source of the E. coli outbreak in Bienenbuettel, Germany, on June 6, 2011

No one yet knows what vegetable or fruit is the ultimate source of the outbreak of a deadly form of E. coli in Europe. Nor do officials know at what point the contamination occurred: on the farm, as agricultural workers handled the produce, as a result of packaging, in the midst of transport or at some other point in the chain of supply? What is clear is that, even after the health hazards are contained, questions will have to be asked about how well the E.U.'s food-safety system works.

European officials are adamant that the system does work. "Of course, when you talk about people dying, it is serious," says Pekka Pesonen, secretary general of the European farmers' union. "But we have to keep in mind that we have 500 million consumers in the E.U., and our food-safety standards are probably the best in the world." The 27-nation organization has a Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, set up in 1979, that includes several non-E.U. states in its reports. In 2009, there were about 8,000 alerts of which only 500 were serious warnings about food already on the market.

However, that mechanism is based on an honor system. Whenever and wherever an E.U. member state faces a serious and damaging food issue, it must inform the European Commission and all the other member states. In the current crisis, the information shared by the Commission with the E.U. 27 was based on findings made by local authorities in Hamburg — the general locus of the outbreak — and German federal authorities. But somehow, things went wrong — resulting in intra-E.U. bickering, widespread economic harm and broader trade ramifications.

Originally, Hamburg authorities identified the source of the outbreak as Spanish cucumbers. This was not only incorrect but also led to an acrimonious argument between Spain and Germany, with Madrid demanding compensation for the damage done. It is estimated that 150,000 tons of cucumbers went unsold in Spain, with the losses put at more than €200 million ($290 million) a week. Given the importance of the agricultural sector to the Spanish economy (which is already burdened by more than 20% unemployment), German finger pointing had a clear cost. It was, perhaps, a classic clash between Germanic overcaution and Latin pride, and had echoes in the ongoing euro-zone saga that pits Berlin's stern budget balancing against the perceived profligacy of southern Europe.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero by phone, she said she regretted the damage caused to the Spanish economy. But she said the Hamburg authorities had acted in accordance with German law — and, in any case, they did find E. coli in the Spanish imports, even if it was not the deadly strain they were looking for. Merkel tried to soothe Zapatero's anger by suggesting that there may be E.U. payouts for the Spanish farmers' losses, although it was not clear why Europe, rather than Germany, should foot this bill.

The German system may need revamping. Germany has a federal agency responsible for disease control, the Robert Koch Institute, which is headquartered in Berlin and is carrying out tests on the bacterium. But in Germany individual states are responsible for health issues, so each state authority is also conducting tests — which is probably, according to some critics, becoming a giant maelstrom of uncoordinated information. Hence the cucumber blame game at the beginning of the crisis and the still unsubstantiated weekend reports of German bean sprouts' being the culprit. Says Flemming Scheutz, director of a World Health Organization research center in Copenhagen: "There is no central network to coordinate the response to an E. coli outbreak on a national level [in Germany] ... There is no central network of communication between the different states in Germany."

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