Plowed Under German Farmers Hit Hard by E. Coli Outbreak

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.

By Nils Klawitter

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

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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