It all seemed straightforward ? initially. German authorities fingered the cause of 22 deaths and hundreds of illnesses as Spanish, a vegetable nightmare from Iberia that had come in the form of the innocuous cucumber. Spanish growers were furious at the slight. E.coli bacteria were said to be the lethal cause, but German officials have now been conceded that there was no link between the outbreak of E. coli and the Spanish produce.
Another culprit has been selected, and even then, we can’t be too sure if that is an accurate choice, as yet. The sprout farm in the village of Steddorf, near Bienenb?ttel, reached prominence in the news. The owner, Klaus Verbeck, finds himself being far from the poster boy of good organic farming. Indeed, he is stunned precisely because the salad sprouts were themselves ‘grown only from seeds and water’ without fertilisation. Green and raw, it seems, are not always best.
That said, German scientists have not been able to pinpoint, as of yet, traces of E. coli bacteria at Verbeck’s organic, and potentially murderous idyll. The explanation for the first round of negative test results may well lie in the fact that the contaminated produce has long been distributed. Any such investigations, one would suspect, would be futile.
The damage has, however, been done, despite the exoneration of the cucumber. At least six other European countries followed the German example in a hurry. A livid Spanish agriculture minister demanded extraordinary compensation. Russia has stolen a march on the entire EU, banning all incoming produce in one go.
The knee jerk reaction is the raison d’etre of a state’s response to disease and infection. Whether it is bubonic plague, SARS or a bacterium that finds a home amidst vegetable matter, the blueprint rarely changes. Russian food controllers are thrilled by this show of European frailty ? the blame game takes another shape: you, Europe, told us to impose a sanitation regime that evidently has not worked. We, of course, know better.
The Spanish farms are suffering sizeable losses: 200 million Euros per week is an estimated number, accord to Reuters. Seventy thousand risk joining the already burgeoning unemployment queues. ‘There has been a drop in consumption around Europe,’ explained European commission spokesman Roger Waite. ‘It has taken on a European-wide crisis impact so we really need to have a European-wide solution’. The city of Hamburg finds itself overwhelmed by sufferers from the bacterium, placing an enormous strain on medical facilities. There is a general fear about eating tomatoes, lettuce and other raw vegetables coming from the northern part of Germany.
Such food borne illnesses are far from new. Bill Marler, an attorney specialising in product liability (with the rather dubious title of being an American ‘food poisoning attorney’), claims that there have been 30 such outbreaks of illness in the US since 1990. Radish sprouts were responsible for causing illness in 10,000 people in Japan in 1996.
One is left, instead, with the health promotion by the International Sprout Growers Association (ISGA), which announced the launch this month of International Sprout Health & Wellness Month. ‘During the month of June consumers around the world will be able to taste and learn all about these amazing vegetables, that have been called “Superfood”, and have been harvested as a low-calorie, high benefit food source for over 3,000 years.’
Blame is not action, but a one-dimensional, brutal reaction. Common responses are retarded as a result. If this is the kind of reaction produced by bacteria from raw vegetables in Europe, one best rush to the stove and ditch the salad altogether.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org