Germany's European Union partners have voiced sharp criticism of its handling of the deadly E. coli outbreak and demanded that it seeks help from experts in other countries.
The epidemic has claimed 24 lives and infected more than 2,300 people over the last month, and authorities still haven't located the source. The failure is increasingly being seen as an embarrassment for a nation famed for its economic prowess and efficiency.
Critics say Germany's crisis response system is too bureaucratic and regionally fragmented, which has slowed down the hunt for the cause of the outbreak and led to confusion over who is in charge of handling the crisis.
Health officials from the central and regional governments met in Berlin on Wednesday to discuss the crisis as the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's national disease control and prevention agency, reported a decline in the number of new infections with the deadly strain of E. coli circulating in primarily northern Germany. The bacteria can lead to kidney damage, seizures, strokes and coma.
"Whether this decline will continue can't be ascertained at present," the institute said on its website.
Didn't React Well
There has been a lack of coordination between regional and central authorities on official announcements about what food people should be avoiding. At present, people are being advised not to eat cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce.
"I wouldn't say they reacted well," Belgian Farming Minister Sabine Laruelle told reporters on the sidelines of a special conference in Luxembourg on Tuesday to discuss compensation for European farmers hit by the crisis. It wasn't clear who in Germany was responsible for what, she said.
Spanish farmers producers have been hardest hit by the Europe-wide collapse in sales of fruit and vegetables during the crisis, after German officials initially blamed cucumbers from Spain for causing the outbreak.
EU Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner John Dalli warned Germany on Tuesday against issuing premature findings about the source of contaminated produce. Information had to be scientifically sound before it was made public, he told the European Parliament. "It is crucial that national authorities don't rush to give information on the source of infection when it's not justified by the science. That creates fears and problems for our food producers. We must be careful not to make premature conclusions."
Germany Should Get Help From the US, Japan
In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt published on Wednesday, Dalli called on Germany "to draw on experience and expertise from all over Europe and even outside Europe." Die Welt reported that the EU expected Germany to seek help from the US and Japan in particular. Those nations have set up early warning mechanisms to help speed up the response to outbreaks such as E. coli.
The paper also said EU officials believed the questionnaires being issued to EHEC patients by German authorities were too narrowly focused on asking whether they had eaten certain types of vegetables.
Some German lawmakers and health experts are calling for a reform of the crisis-response system once the current outbreak is over. Dagmar Roth-Behrendt, a German member of the European Parliament for the opposition center-left Social Democratic Party, accused German authorities of a "communications chaos."
The director of the Max-Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Stefan Kaufman, called for the appointment of a government coordinator to take charge of managing future crises by improving the cooperation among the various ministries.
Real Market Value
German consumer Affairs Protection Minister Ilse Aigner defended Germany's handling of the outbreak. "We are all working together in this situation. There is no wrangling over responsibilities, none at all," she told Germany's ARD television network on Monday night. "The authorities are working around the clock."
Meanwhile, Spain's farming minister, Rosa Aguilar, said an EU proposal to offer €150 million euros in compensation to farmers affected by the collapse in sales was is insufficient and that producers should be fully compensated. "No, it's not enough for Spain," said Aguilar.
"What we will propose is that there should be a response to all producers ... for 100 percent of the real market value of the losses," Aguilar said at the ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday.