Cucumbers. Photo credit: ClayIrving

The source of the world’s largest E. coli outbreak, that has killed 16 people and sickened hundreds more, mostly in northern Germany, remains unknown but one thing is for sure: the diplomatic fall-out across Europe is hitting hard.

Last Thursday, Hamburg’s state health minister, Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks, identified Spanish cucumbers as the source of the outbreak. The food safety scare prompted Russia to threaten to ban all European vegetables, while Belgium blocked Spanish cucumbers. However, German officials yesterday were forced to concede that Spanish cucumbers are not the cause after all.

“Germany accused Spain of being responsible for the E coli contamination in Germany, and it did it with no proof, causing irreparable damage to the Spanish production sector,” said Spain’s agriculture minister Rosa Aguilar, who ate a Andalucian cucumber on live television. Hours later, German agriculture secretary Robert Kloos told an EU farm ministers meeting in Hungary: “Germany recognises that the Spanish cucumbers are not the cause.”

  • Diplomatic rupture over cucumbers. “The outbreak has caused a diplomatic rupture be­tween Germany and Spain, where officials are furious that a fellow European Union government should have called into question the safety of one of the country’s main export sectors without firm evidence,” observed The Financial Times, which added “under rules designed to preserve the integrity of the EU’s single market, national governments are supposed to demonstrate reasonable justification before limiting agriculture exports from other member states.” The paper noted that The Netherlands, a big producer of cucumbers and a transit hub for European produce, has also been hit. Farmers said weekly losses could run to €30m ($43m).
  • Health scare hurts Spanish economy. The Guardian spelled out how the false alarm has impacted on the Spanish production sector and forecast what measures it will take to repair the damage: “Spanish farmers say fear of their produce is spreading in Europe. Customers are cancelling orders, and farm workers are being laid off in a country with 21% unemployment. Some 150,000 tons of Spanish fruit and vegetables are piling up every week, with losses running at €200m (£175m) a week, according to Fepex, Spain’s fruit and vegetable export body … Spain would be demanding compensation for all European vegetable producers who had experienced losses because of the health scare, said Aguilar.”
  • Spain might take action. Bloomberg reported that Spain may “take action” against Germany for saying Spanish cucumbers were the cause of the outbreak. The paper quoted Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba: “’A lot of money has been lost, and our image,’ he said. ‘We don’t rule out taking action against the authorities who cast doubt on the quality of our produce, in this case the authorities in Hamburg.’”
  • So, where did the outbreak originate? “Wherever it happened, the question of how the pathogen got onto the vegetables was still unresolved by the weekend. The suspicion that liquid manure contaminated the cucumbers seems to make sense, but only at first glance,” reported Der Spiegel. “Now the scientists are taking a closer look at a group of pests that were previously above suspicion: slugs. Biologists from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland identified the mollusks as potential E. coli carriers — the bacteria can survive for up to 14 days on the slimy surface of their bodies. Arion vulgaris, the Spanish slug, has long been a problem in Germany, but it’s an even bigger and more widespread problem in its native Spain.”