E. coli outbreak: German food producers under siege

By Tim Jenkins
BBC World Service

image captionSuspicions that bean sprouts from this farm in Northern Germany were the source of E.coli led to attempts by journalists to scale the gates

"No, Mr Verbeck is not available to talk," said the private security guard newly hired to turn journalists away from the Gaertnerhof farm in Bienenbuettel - deep in the flat, damp grasslands of Lower Saxony.

He was polite but very firm - and was soon joined by another couple of well-built colleagues.

"No, you cannot take any photos," he said too. So we had to walk a little way back down the muddy public track before grabbing a snap of Germany's most controversial farm.

You have to feel some sympathy for Klaus Verbeck. Some reporters were caught climbing his fences to have a nose around the place where he produces bean sprouts for salads.

image captionMany customers are shunning vegetables while uncertainty over health remains

And yet he is probably not responsible for the outbreak of a deadly new form of E. coli - which has claimed 24 lives, and put nearly 2,500 people in hospital.

Tests on his salad sprouts have so far proved negative, though more are due.

E. coli is associated with human waste - but no fertilisers are used in the making of these beansprouts. They are grown in hot and steamy vats - which would be a breeding ground for bacteria if not kept clean and at the right temperature - but Mr Verbeck's organic farm got a clean bill of health at his recent, regular inspection.

Long term damage

"But for him, this is just the start," says Thorsten Riggert, head of the farmers' union for Lower Saxony.

image captionThorsten Riggert: "We work with nature. It's not possible to be 100% sure that our food is always safe"

The reputational damage that farmers face in Germany and Spain will last far longer than the news headlines about this outbreak.

"Every time he looks for a contract, every time he mentions his name, people will remember this event and think again."

Chatting to shoppers at the bustling Isemarkt in Hamburg, that fear seems justified. There is a vivid kaleidoscope of colours on the vegetable stalls - plenty for sale - but customers are shunning salad foods for now.

"Of course we are worried," said one woman. "We don't buy tomatoes or cucumbers for the moment. It just isn't clear what's safe."

Another said: "Even if we don't believe the hype, we keep it at the back of our minds all the time and avoid salads right now."

Stallholders' takings are definitely down, although there may be a turning point now.

At his stall, Benjamin is hopeful: "But the economic impact is very, very bad."

And as for being sure about what he is selling: "We cannot check what goes into our goods - we are powerless."

Safe to eat?

Spanish cucumbers were the first to be described as suspicious by Germany's health agencies.

In the end, those tested did not harbour any of the deadly new strain of E. coli. But some did have traces of the more common form of E. coli, which should not be there either.

Watching the trucks and seemingly unending trains rumbling past the port of Hamburg's vast wholesale market, the Grossmarkt, you are reminded of how complicated and long the supply chain can be, bringing our fresh food from farm, to market, to dinner plate.

A food chain with so many links that could fail.

"We work with nature," Thorsten Riggert reminds us. "It's not possible to be 100% sure that our food is always safe. For that we would have to produce all our food in factories.

"Then you can eat pills, instead of salads or tomatoes. It's not possible to be sure."

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