E. coli outbreak prompts political fights, calls for reform

Europe's inability to zero-in on the cause of an E. coli outbreak, which has been blamed for 23 deaths, has politicians pointing fingers and experts calling for more effective crisis management.

Jacques brinon/AP
A farm worker empties cucumbers into a container after failing to sell them due an ongoing food crisis in Europe, in Carquefou, western France, on Monday, June 6. The current crisis is the deadliest E. coli outbreak in modern history, and the outbreak is being blamed on a highly aggressive, 'super-toxic' strain of E. coli.

While scientists are still trying to establish the source of an E. coli outbreak that killed 23 people and affected more than 2,000, the German government is facing increasing criticism over its handling of the crisis.

The outbreak has resulted in conflicting messages from public health officials, warnings followed by retractions, and outrage from European farmers who say the crisis has lost them millions of dollars. While the source of the E. coli contamination still eludes European Union and German officials, what seems to be clear, say experts, is that a centralized, more streamlined crisis management is needed in the future, both at member states level and within the EU bureaucracy.

Already the crisis is leading to political fallout. German Health Minister Daniel Bahr, a member of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Germany’s coalition government, has been accused of having underestimated the outbreak.

“He should have put more pressure on the investigation to find the source of the outbreak and he should have been much more open to the public,” said Karl Lauterbach, health expert with the opposition Social Democrats.

Renate Künast from the opposition Green party, herself a former agricultural minister, criticized the lack of crisis management. “There is no national action plan, neither for the health sector nor for the agricultural sector,” Ms. Künast told reporters.

Responsibilities in the fight against EHEC, a deadly strain of E. coli that has been discovered on vegetables in some European countries, are shared between 16 German states and their health and agricultural ministries. At federal level, both ministries are supported by the Robert Koch Institute, which is responsible for disease control and prevention, and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

Exchange of information between these institutions can be slow. There is no central authority gathering and publishing information on the outbreak and its possible causes.

“The crisis management carried out by the states has been very effective,” says Erich Schröder, who teaches medical sociology at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “The civil servants and scientists in the affected states are close to the problem and thus best equipped to deal with it. Whether we need a central processing of information is another question. Maybe we should take a look and see how other countries do it.”

About two weeks into the outbreak, Robert Koch Institute researchers established what EHEC patients in Hamburg had eaten – cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce. A week later, Hamburg’s health authorities named cucumbers from Spain as the source of the problem.

Five days later, this warning turned out to be wrong. And while federal health minister Daniel Bahr still maintained that cucumbers were the most-likely culprits, his colleague from the state of Lower Saxony already told the public that bean sprouts from an organic farm in Germany had carried the germs – both claims have yet to be proven.

A lot of confusion could have been avoided, says Stefan Etgeton, spokesman for the Federation of German Consumer Organizations.

“In our view, just one organization like the Robert Koch Institute should issue and retract health warnings,” says Mr. Etgeton. “I still think it was right to warn against Spanish cucumbers. But when the Hamburg authorities did, they meant to say German vegetables were safe. And that was irresponsible.”

Meanwhile in Luxembourg, EU agricultural ministers are gathering for an emergency meeting to discuss aid for Europe’s vegetable farmers, whose exports have been hit by the EHEC crisis, and to review the EU’s food safety alert system. Up to $220 million will be set aside to help farmers affected by the crisis, the ministers agreed.

Ahead of this meeting, EU health commissioner John Dalli addressed the European Parliament, warning against releasing unproven information on health scares. Mr. Dalli said: “The outbreak is limited geographically to the area surrounding Hamburg. There is no reason to take action on a European level.”

After Dalli’s speech, Spanish parliamentarian Francisco Sosa Wagner held up a cucumber and demanded: “We need to restore the honor of the cucumber.”

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