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Plowed Under: German Farmers Hit Hard by E. Coli Outbreak

By Nils Klawitter

Vegetable farmers in Germany are losing up to 5 million euros a day as a result of the E. coli scare which has gripped the country. Even though lettuce and other produce from many farms has been given a clean bill of health, consumers and retailers have stopped buying greens.

Farmers in northern Germany have been forced to plow their produce back into their fields as consumers and retail outlets shy away. Zoom
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Farmers in northern Germany have been forced to plow their produce back into their fields as consumers and retail outlets shy away.

Rudolf Behr says that it's easy enough to prove the cleanliness of his vegetables. Just take a look at his staff: Every day, they take home some of his produce. "If there were anything to this, we'd be up to our ears in diarrhea here."

His workers from Poland and Romania are doing great, says Behr -- except for the fact that he has hardly any more work for them. For almost two weeks now, he hasn't been able to move any of his produce. At the distribution center, palettes of wilting, brown lettuce are stacked in the sun. Due to the E. coli crisis, the vegetable grower is now losing €250,000 ($365,000) -- each day.

Behr is standing in one of his fields near Seevetal, south of Hamburg. The farmer is accompanied by a camera crew. He pulls a leaf off a head of iceberg lettuce in the field and bites into it. "How is E. coli supposed to get in there?" he asks. The lettuce has never been treated with manure, he says. Even on his organic fields in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, he only spreads manure before planting, he adds. Under a film that absorbs UV light, he admits, this kind of bacteria could pose a certain danger. But Behr cultivates only open fields. "Under these conditions, the light of the sun would kill a pathogen within two hours."

Behr has a stack of paper in his car: Dozens of new laboratory samples have been taken of his produce in the search for the E. coli pathogens. They all came back negative. This evidence has no impact, though. The grower will lose 40 hectares (99 acres) of iceberg lettuce -- 2.4 million heads. Now, he is not even bothering to harvest many of his fields, so he can later plow under the wilted lettuce.

'Couldn't Even Be Fed to Livestock'

Behr is one of Germany's largest producers, and his problems are symptomatic of what has happened to the entire country's fruit and vegetable industry. Every day, the sector's approximately 10,000 farmers now incur losses of €5 million, says Helmut Born, secretary general of the German Farmers' Association. Russia has even imposed an import ban on vegetables from the entire EU.

A worker at the Timmermann organic farm in western Hamburg says that in the days following the news of the first infections, nearly all cucumbers and tomatoes remained untouched on the shelves. She says that authorities destroyed a wholesaler's consignment of cucumbers, which was delivered by one of the Spanish producers that was briefly under suspicion. "They couldn't even be fed to livestock." Now, however, the situation has eased somewhat -- partly because the suppliers have provided laboratory testing of their products.

Consumers' fears have also affected Enno Glantz, a major strawberry grower who sells his fruit at over 150 mobile stands all across northern Germany. At first, sales slumped by up to 40 percent. Glantz was lucky, though, because he was able to "shift the picking rhythm." But he's not considering reducing prices: "With the current mood of uncertainty, even prices of 20 cents a tray wouldn't have convinced consumers."

Instead of conducting a more intensive study of the supply chain, says Born, government agencies and scientific experts have zeroed in on cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce -- although hundreds of vegetable samples have now produced negative results.

Born doesn't want to go as far as Spanish politicians, who are demanding compensation from German authorities. Instead, like German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner, he is counting on European Union subsidies to compensate for drastic drops in sales. But it remains doubtful whether these funds can actually be tapped: According to participants attending a meeting of the EU Agriculture Council in Hungary last week, EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos appeared skeptical of such demands.

Silver Lining?

The retail sector is also affected. "We have had to throw away millions of euros worth of produce," said Raimund Luigi, managing director of the Kaiser's Tengelmann supermarket chain, in an interview with the trade journal Lebensmittelzeitung. Meanwhile, many companies are simply no longer accepting deliveries of vegetables. Dealers at the Hamburg wholesale market, one of Germany's largest hubs for fresh produce, have been hit hard: Every day, tons of vegetables there are hauled away to waste incineration plants.

Behr, the lettuce grower, has also noticed that he has practically no leverage with retailers. "All orders are verbal," says Behr. From his fields across Europe, he always harvests the amount of produce that buyers from German supermarkets like Lidl and Rewe have requested the previous day. And if things go wrong, he is stuck with the merchandise. "Contractually speaking, we are not protected," says Behr. He says he not only has to destroy his own produce, but at the beginning of the E. coli slump, he even had to pick it up again from retailers throughout Germany.

But there is a positive side to the entire disaster, says Behr. Thanks to the large numbers of tests, German farmers can now be fairly certain that they are not sitting on a kind of time bomb. "We were all afraid of such a background noise and suddenly asked ourselves if there wasn't some kind of age-old contamination in the soil."

The consequences of rather revolting fertilizing practices are also resurfacing, at least in debates. As late as the 1960s, says Behr, it was still common in Germany to drizzle vegetables with water from sewage treatment plants.

Indeed, it doesn't surprise Behr that these days almost every egg has traces of arsenic and there is dioxin in almost every fish from the Mediterranean.

But nothing noxious was found in his lettuce -- and no E. coli bacteria, either.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Germany's E. Coli Epidemic

What to Know about E. Coli
Which E. coli strain is causing the outbreak?
There are hundreds of different types of Escherichia Coli, E. Coli, strains, most of which are harmless for humans. Strains are differentiated by their so-called serotypes -- variations within a subspecies of bacteria -- usually with the designations "O" and "H". "O" indicates the lipopolysaccharides, a type of sugar-fat molecule, found on the outer surface of the bacteria; "H" stands for the type of flagella found on the bacteria (flagella are the hairs the bacteria uses to move itself). E. coli bacteria are designated as enterohemorrhagic when they lead to bloody diarrhea in humans. This occurs because some subtypes, like the one currently causing panic in Germany, produce a certain poison, so-called Shiga toxins. The E. coli strain linked to the outbreak in Germany is being identified as E. Coli serotype 0104:H4. Experts have been especially surprised by the strain's aggressive nature and rapid spread. They first thought the strain to be a mutation of serotype 0104:H4. But initial genetic analysis suggests that the bacterium in question is actually a unique variant of the strain: According to the World Health Organization, this type of Enterohemmorhagic E. Coli (EHEC) has been seen in humans before but has never before been linked to an outbreak.
How can the risk of disease be reduced?
There is no vaccine currently available and treatment with antibiotics can be problematic. The reason: the E. coli bacteria in question release a dangerous (Shiga) toxin into the human body, and antibiotics can actually increase the amount of poison released. Good hygiene is one way to significantly decrease the risk of E. coli infection. Facial contact should be avoided after having handled animals or touched the floor. Raw meat and easily-spoiled foodstuffs should be stored at appropriate temperatures in a refrigerator or freezer. When cooking, foodstuffs should be cooked through in order to kill bacteria (at least 10 minutes at 70 degrees Celsius, 158 Fahrenheit). Wash hands regularly. Cutting boards, dishes and utensils should all be washed thoroughly. Avoid unpasteurized milk and unpasteurized milk products.
How can I tell if I've been infected by the E. coli bacteria?
The most common symptom of E. coli infection is heavy, and possibly bloody, diarrhea. Other possible symptoms include nausea, vomiting and, in rare cases, fever.
What can doctors do in the case of 0104:H4 infection?
The incubation period of O104:H4 is 10 to 13 days. Characteristic symptoms of the strain include bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and anemia. Experts have linked O104:H4 to haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure and even death. With current knowledge, experts do not yet have the means necessary to effectively combat the O104:H4 pathogen. They are therefore treating the typical complications and symptoms as a whole, for instance through plasmapheresis, essentially a blood plasma transfusion. Some of those who are currently infected are also undergoing an experimental therapy of antibody treatment.
What should be done if symptoms arise?
In the case of serious diarrhea, saline- and fluid-loss need to be compensated for. If serious symptoms appear, medical treatment should be sought. In order to counteract potential complications as quickly as possible, those who are in extreme danger -- infants, small children or the elderly -- should be treated in a hospital.
What are other causes of gastrointestinal illnesses?
Gastrointestinal illnesses are among the most common infectious diseases in the world, and can be caused by germs other than E. coli. The norovirus circulates throughout the year and reaches its peak during the winter months. Its incubation period, at least six hours, is short. The norovirus also causes abdominal pains and fatigue, and is primarily spread via humans. During peak periods of illness, the victims are highly contagious.
The rotavirus is the most common cause of viral gastrointestinal disease in children. Ninety percent of children catch the virus before age three. Life-threatening dehydration is a possible effect. Other causes for gastrointestinal illnesses are salmonella and staphylococci.

Info Graphic
Unleashed Aggressor: How the E. coli serotype O104:H4 attacks the body

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