Next week is Food Safety Week. But if anyone was complacent, before this week’s tragic E.coli outbreak in Hamburg, Germany, about the dangers inherent in working in the food and drink industry, they won’t be now.

This is a wake-up call to all of us. If you cut corners, people can get killed. And as earlier food safety crises such as foot and mouth and BSE proved, the consequences can devastate not only families, but whole communities, indeed the prosperity of an entire industry.

The sight of the Andalusia farming minister this week munching defiantly on cucumbers brought back uncomfortable memories of John Gummer, the-then agriculture minister, tucking into a burger with his daughter as the British BSE crisis escalated.

It’s too early to say if this E.coli outbreak will be as damaging to the fresh produce industry as the BSE crisis, but now, as then, there appear to be many innocent victims.

Apart from the victims themselves, the most obvious casualty is Spain. Even though initial links to Spanish farms have since been discredited, all Spanish producers have been hit a devastating blow to both the local and national economy.

And pity the poor cucumber! The specific link to organic cucumber farms also turned out to be false. But by then the damage had been done, and sales of cucumbers have plummeted not only in Germany but across Europe. Even UK growers, who might reasonably hope to take advantage this is UK cucumber season, after all are likely to be hit, with cucumber prices in the UK already plummeting as unwanted European produce arrives at knockdown prices.

By the time you read this, I hope the source of the outbreak has been identified, because the longer it drags on, the worse the fallout from this tragedy. But it may never come to light. And then what?

Read more
UK cucumber prices fall by 30% as E.coli triggers supply glut (4 June 2011)
Unanswered questions over Europe’s deadly E.coli crisis (analysis; 4 June 2011)