German Officials: Source Of E. Coli Outbreak Unclear



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At first, health officials in Germany pointed the finger at cucumbers grown in Spain as the source of a deadly E. coli outbreak. Then they said it was sprouts grown on an organic farm in northern Germany. Linda Wertheimer talks to Brooke Unger, Berlin Bureau Chief for The Economist, about the economic impact of the outbreak.


Authorities still do not know what has caused a deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany. But 22 people are dead, and more than 2,000 across Europe have become sick. At first, German officials pointed the fingers at cucumbers grown in Spain. Next, it was bean sprouts grown on an organic farm in northern Germany. Now tests on that farm are proving inconclusive.

To address the crisis and its economic impact, the European Union is holding an emergency meeting today. To learn more, we called The Economist's Berlin Bureau Chief, Brooke Unger. Mr. Unger, welcome.

Mr. BROOKE UNGER (Berlin Bureau Chief, The Economist): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Could you give us some sense of where the investigation into the source of the outbreak stands? It seems as though they keep jumping around, from country to country, vegetable to vegetable.

Mr. UNGER: Well, I think that's true. I mean there's a pretty strong suspicion that it has something to do with raw vegetables, but there are an awful lot of raw vegetables in the world and they haven't really figured out which one it is. The authorities are advising people, still, not to eat tomatoes, salad, lettuce, and cucumbers - so even though the Spanish cucumbers have been exonerated, they're still warning us off that.

And now they've fixed on bean sprouts, but you know, there's no conclusive evidence that that was the cause either. So they're still running around trying to figure out what it is. And, you know, every day that goes by when they don't find the source, makes it less likely that they will in the end find it.

WERTHEIMER: So, what's been the reaction in Germany?

Mr. UNGER: Well, I mean I think a lot of fear and concern and worry. I mean this is a very serious outbreak, you know, as mentioned, more than 2,000 people have fallen ill and, you know, about a third of those develop a complication from the bacteria called hemolytic remix syndrome, which, you know, can be fatal. And even if it's not fatal, it can be permanently damaging. So, you know, people are very worried and they've sharply reduced their consumption of raw vegetables, and the continent is sort of up in arms about this.

WERTHEIMER: What about farmers? Apparently, so far, the farmers that were thought to have caused this outbreak have been exonerated, as you put it, but one would imagine that the economic impact on them has been particularly bad, and people who raise the same kind of vegetables, also bad.

Mr. UNGER: Well, it has been. I mean there's been a real sort of ripple effect from the few vegetables that people have sort of identified as possible causes to, really, all fruits and vegetables. Spanish farmers have talked about losses of 200 million euros a week, which is like $290 million. German farmers talk about losses of 30 million euros a week. The Russians have banned all fruit and vegetable exports from the European Union. And you know, consumption has just fallen drastically. I mean that's a 50 billion euro a year market, so farmers are suffering.

WERTHEIMER: Is this so serious that you're looking at the possibility that an entire crop season will be lost to European farmers?

Mr. UNGER: Well, I'm not sure it's that serious. I mean, maybe fortunately, some of these, I believe the cucumber season, for example, in Spain, was coming to an end, so, you know, even though people stop getting Spanish cucumbers, they probably would have done so in a couple of weeks anyway. And you know, some things are even more effective than others. I mean, you know, me personally, I'm avoiding the things that the authorities tell me to avoid, but I'm still eating, you know, raspberries and apples, and things like that. But, you know, the head of the European Union Vegetable Growers Association talks about a virtual standstill in the market right now, which I think that's a bit of an exaggeration, but still it's a very serious problem.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Mr. Unger.

Mr. UNGER: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: The Economist's Brooke Unger joined us from Berlin.

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