Blog: Petah MarianE. coli hysteria causes leaders to make damaging decisions

Petah Marian | 3 June 2011

Aside from bloody diarrhoea, liver failure and severe illness, the E. coli outbreak has led a number of leaders into hysteria - at least that seems to be the only justification for a number of damaging knee-jerk reactions made over the past week.

While scientists continue to attempt to figure out the cause of the E. coli outbreak that has killed some 17 people in Germany and one in Sweden, European leaders have made a series of reactionary decisions that have only intensified consumer fears and damaged already-struggling industries in the name of protecting consumer health.

Consumer safety is always paramount, and it goes without saying that the human toll of what has been described as the "worst recorded food poisoning outbreak" is clearly the most important aspect of the whole tragedy.

But, I think, the speed with which the Hamburg Health Authority moved to incorrectly blame Spanish cucumbers for the outbreak was a hysterical one. The move is one that will cause significant damage to the Spanish farming sector, both now and into the future.

Hamburg's health minister, Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks may feel reassured that she acted correctly in blaming the cucumbers, as even though they did not carry the strain of E. coli responsible for the outbreak, they were "nevertheless a health hazard and the pathogens can cause EHEC disease".

This sentiment is not one shared by the Spanish farming sector, whose fresh vegetables were effectively blocked from export for a number of days, a situation which some corners allege will have cost it something in the region of EUR200m and "irreparable" damage to its reputation.

Both leaders of Germany and Spain are looking to the EU to arrange some kind of compensation for these farmers.

The other major knee-jerk reaction has come from the Russian government with its decision to ban all fresh fruit and vegetable imports from the EU until the source of the outbreak is discovered. It initially put in place a ban on Spanish and German produce on Monday, and yesterday extended it to the entire EU.

Responding to EU complaints that the ban contradicts the spirit of the world trade organisation, Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin said: "We can't poison our people for the sake of some spirit."

His hot-headed comments fail to take into consideration that all of the illnesses reported have come from people that have been either in, or in contact with either residents or recent visitors to northern Germany.

If he really wanted to take a stand, he'd ban Russians from going to Germany, or vice versa -  an unlikely strategy.

Of course this comes on the same day that Russia banned the sale of meat from three Brazilian cities, which comes on the back of a ban on import on potatoes from Egypt following allegations sanitation issues.

Yesterday there was also hysterical reports saying that genetic scientists had found the E. coli strain had "never been seen before", a statement which the scientists have moved swiftly to correct. While the strain is a "super-toxic" one that is immune to antibiotics, it is a hybrid of two other strains and has been seen before in humans, just not in an outbreak.

While the impacts of the E. coli outbreak are broad ranging, people continue to get sick and as the as the death toll continues to rise, officials across Europe need to spend more time looking into the cause, and less of it shouting at each other.




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