This is a fast-moving story. What do we know? Is there any consensus? Are cucumbers to blame?
We know 17 people have died and 2,000 have fallen ill since an E.coli outbreak in the Germany city of Hamburg at the beginning of May.
Initially, contaminated Spanish cucumbers were thought to be the cause, with German authorities pinpointing organic producers in Almeria and Malaga as the source. But this theory has been discredited, with the EU lifting its warning against Spanish cucumbers, citing new tests carried out in Spain and Germany.
In fact, it might not be cucumbers at all. It is very rare to see E.coli linked to any fresh produce but particularly cucumbers, as they are easy to wash and clean. Some experts suspect that, if there is indeed a link to fresh produce in this case, it would be through contaminated water used in handling or processing salads or vegetables rather than because produce was contaminated at source.
The clear geographical focus of the E.coli scare with the city of Hamburg as the epicentre would support this theory.
But one week after the outbreak all bets are off in Germany, with the authorities admitting they are having to start their search from scratch and investigators looking at all possibilities including fresh produce but also meat products.
At present, the FSA and the Health Protection Agency say they have not identified any evidence that produce from any sources linked to the outbreak so far have been distributed to the UK. Nigel Jenney at the Fresh Produce Consortium also points out that, for what it’s worth, most cucumbers on sale in British supermarkets at this time of year are British-grown.
But there are no cast-iron guarantees with incidents such as this. As long as the actual source of the E.coli contamination is unknown, it is very difficult to give 100% assurances.
Sales of fresh produce in Germany have, understandably, been devastated, and German authorities are advising consumers not to eat any raw cucumbers, tomatoes or leafy salads. But even in countries with absolutely no links to the outbreak, including the UK, Ireland and Greece, demand for salad veg is understood to have dropped off.
They are likely to fall in the short term. Key growing countries such as Spain and the Netherlands have been left with a massive surplus of cucumbers, in particular, which are now looking for a new home. If large volumes of massively discounted cucumbers from the continent hit the UK, British growers could end up getting a lot less for their produce.
One Dutch supplier to the UK says wholesale prices for cucumbers are already down as much as 30% on some markets it serves. “We are effectively throwing away produce,” he says. “It shows how misinformation can damage the entire sector, the entire country, in terms of the sale of fresh produce.”
Spanish growers claim they are losing 200m a week as a result of the German authorities’ now disproven allegations. Meanwhile, with growers in North Germany suffering from suggestions that the unauthorised use of manure could be linked to the outbreak, German farmers organisation BVD claims it has lost close to 40m to date.
But the costs associated with this tragedy are likely to be far more wide reaching, with UK and other European fresh produce producers hit by lower prices. Russia’s all-out ban on fresh vegetables from the EU has raised the stakes still further, curtailing export opportunities.
EU experts are due to meet on Tuesday to ascertain the economic damage, assess claims and start to work out to what extent EU monies can be used to help farmers through any economic hardship. There is almost certainly going to have to be a “bail-out” of farmers of some sort, says Nick Jacobs of Agra Europe. This could be through national schemes, EU funds or ancillary support such as loans being handed out on especially favourable terms.
The FSA says it is acting on information from the European Commission and working closely with industry trade bodies, wholesalers and retailers to monitor any potential impact in the UK. Updates are being issued via the FSA website including a link to the EC’s official updates on E.coli and the agency has issued a Q&A document on cross-contamination risks associated with E.coli.
The major UK mults have unequivocally asserted that they are not affected by the E.coli outbreak on the Continent, and to date no produce has been withdrawn from UK shelves. All have briefed customer service advisers to deal with enquiries from UK consumers and are typically redirecting shoppers to the FSA.
Since no contaminated produce is known to have entered the UK, the FSA is simply reiterating its general hygiene advice for fruit and vegetables: “It is a good idea to wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them to ensure that they are clean, and to help remove germs that might be on the outside. Peeling or cooking fruit and vegetables can also remove these germs.”
It’s a different story in Germany, where the authorities are continuing to advise consumers not to eat any raw cucumbers, tomatoes and leafy salads. Cooking, frying and pasteurisation can kill E.coli bacteria, but freezing does not, and peeling vegetables still leaves open the possibility that bacteria could transfer from the peel to the vegetable, they advise.
The European fresh produce industry is crying out for a clear, transparent and credible explanation to restore consumer confidence. As long as the source of the outbreak is not identified, growers not only in Spain and Germany but across Europe will continue to suffer from reputational damage (and lost sales) to their industries, and shoppers around Europe, including the UK, are likely to approach fresh vegetables with unnecessary wariness, a possible and additional detriment to health.
The key figures
2,000 Number of people taken ill with E.coli
€240m Weekly losses incurred by Spanish, German and Dutch growers
€4bn EU fruit & veg exports to Russia
90% Drop in cucumber, tomato and salad sales in Northern Germany
4 Number of cucumbers found with E.coli bacteria in Hamburg
0 Amount of conclusive evidence tying the outbreak to a specific source