Europe

E. coli outbreak: Cries of 'chaos!' at crisis handling

  • 7 June 2011
  • From the section Europe
A worker throws away cucumbers to be destroyed at an agriculture facility near Bucharest, Romania, on Monday
Image caption Sales of vegetables around Europe are collapsing due to the E.coli outbreak

The mood in Germany has changed.

The morning papers have started using the word "chaos" liberally.

The mass market Bild sums it up: "Chaos on killer germs! No E. coli found in bean sprouts... Consumer advocates criticise politicians... Citizens completely unsettled."

At the other end of the newspaper spectrum, the more august Die Welt concurs, but in different words - the way the crisis has been handled is coming under fire, it says.

There is now a post-mortem on the post-mortem - why did the health authorities not react to the emergence of the bug more quickly?

Had they done so, the reasoning goes, then the source might have been identified. The assumption now is that it might well be too late.

It seems that the first person fell ill at the beginning of May but the central authorities were not alerted until nearly three weeks later.

There was a gap between what might have been the first signs of an outbreak of a serious illness and the full engagement of the system.

Another newspaper, Spiegel, says that in other countries the response is swifter: "While news of a potentially deadly outbreak can take up to two weeks to reach top German health authorities, other developed nations such as the United States and Japan have instituted early warning mechanisms."

'No facts'

Farmers in Germany are also getting more vocal in their condemnation of the authorities.

Image caption First cucumbers got the blame, then it was bean sprouts

In the region of Lower Saxony, around the latest farm to be identified, farmer Torsten Riggert told the BBC that the industry is reeling.

It is the season when produce ripens and goes to market - except that the market has collapsed, so more and more is going to waste, he says.

"Customers aren't buying vegetables at all," he says. "And so farmers can't sell their products - every day we lose one million euros [£890,000; $1.46m].

"When the government goes to the press, they should have facts but they didn't have facts."

The problem is that there are no facts. In many cases of E. coli, the original source is not traced. Food is perishable and by the time the outbreak occurs, the source may literally have perished and been disposed of.

The authorities follow two tracks, one in the laboratory and the other asking questions of patients and food handlers, and this is not easy - Hamburg's central wholesale vegetable market, for example, is the size of 30 football fields and has 150 stalls.

The difficulty is that one takes longer than the other. The laboratory tests take days from the time a potential source is identified.

If many tracks lead to one farm, they contact it and stop production. They then take samples from every conceivable surface - from the inside of air-conditioning units to work surfaces to the insides of containers and attempt to match them with samples from patients.

An exact match means that was the source.

No match means - chaos, as the newspapers put it.

Many voices

One of the unanswered questions about this outbreak is why the authorities went public with a potential source only to backtrack days later.

It has happened twice now, first when the finger was pointed at Spanish cucumbers and then when the blame shifted to the German bean sprouts.

Part of the problem may be that Germany's federal structure means that all the states have their own ministries of health and of agriculture and three states have large numbers of E. coli patients so the issue is playing big in the local media, perhaps putting pressure on politicians to be seen to be doing something.

On top of that, there are the federal agencies. Between them all there are many voices. There is also a German belief in direct and open speech - if the authorities know something they believe the citizens should be told.

But where sensitive markets are concerned, openness can cost euros - lots of them - if it leads to repeated contradictions of previous statements.

It leads to, as Bild puts it, "chaos".