Farmers Losing Millions EU Officials Take Aim at Germany for E. Coli Approach
Was it sprouts? Or was it cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce? The search for the cause of the deadliest E. coli outbreak on record continues in Germany. The death toll has climbed to 22 and the number of infections likely surpassed 2,300, said the country's disease control authority, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). A number of other infections were also reported across Europe, and even as far afield as the United States -- with most of those believed to have visited the outbreak epicenter of Hamburg before falling ill.
Hospitals in the northern city-state and in neighboring regions report working at their limits to treat the growing number of patients suffering from a rare strain of the bacteria Enterohemmorhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC), never before seen by scientists in an outbreak. The aggressive mutant strain of two separate E. coli bacteria has caused severe complications in more than one-third of patients, who have developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure. Doctors are scrambling to provide kidney dialysis for these patients, reportedly rushing them between cities in ambulances because only a limited number of machines are available. Meanwhile hospital workers are said to be giving up weekends and vacation to meet growing demand. Fears of blood bank shortages have also sparked calls for citizens to donate their blood.
On Tuesday, the German hospitals association (DKG) said its members were overwhelmed with the financial strain of the outbreak, and demanded government aid. "In light of the E. coli epidemic I appeal to politicians to take back the financial cuts planned for hospitals," DKG managing director Georg Baum told German daily Rheinische Post. The situation proves just how important keeping beds and staff available at clinics can be, he said, explaining that healthcare institutions in affected areas had only managed to stay afloat because they were swapping staff. "The clinics are doing everything necessary for the care of the sick -- without considering whether their services will be compensated by health insurers later," Baum told the paper.
Meanwhile, the country's new Health Minister Daniel Bahr, in office for only about one month, is drawing criticism for his handling of the epidemic from opposition politicians. Over the weekend the 34-year-old member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition party, the Free Democrats, visited the front line of the outbreak, the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE). While the visit yielded striking photographs, his appearance at a later press conference disappointed politicians. In response to the ongoing questions over the source of the outbreak, Bahr said raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce were still the main suspects. But news that the Lower Saxony Agriculture Ministry was in hot pursuit of newly suspected sprouts had already broken earlier.
"I'm asking myself what exactly the health minister is doing," said Renate Künast, co-leader of the Green party's parliamentary group on Monday. Thomas Oppermann, speaker for the center-left Social Democratic (SPD) parliamentary group said he found Bahr's crisis management "unconvincing." Another SPD politician, parliamentary health policy committee member Karl Lauterbach, said the Health Ministry had failed in its communication strategy. "The coordination of testing and the clarifications for the public were suboptimal," he told daily Passauer Neue Presse in an article published on Tuesday. Lauterbach also called on Bahr to create a mobile task force to tackle future outbreaks.
Experts have also criticized the country's muddled bureaucratic process for wasting precious time in pinpointing the outbreak's origin. Responsibilities are spread across local, municipal, state and federal agencies, with no central information center to inform the public, they complain.
But Consumer and Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner, a member of Merkel's conservatives, defended the response of government agencies. "The crisis management works -- the agencies are concentrating all of their efforts on fighting this epidemic," she told daily Saarbrücker Zeitung on Tuesday. An emergency meeting for state and federal health and consumer ministers has been planned for Wednesday.
EU Agriculture Ministers Meet
Authorities are still advising consumers to avoid raw tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and most recently sprouts , despite their failure to determine a direct link between the produce and E. coli. Though Lower Saxony's first round of testing on suspected sprouts turned up negative for the bacteria, authorities in Hanover said they were still pursuing the lead. "We stand by our suspicions," state Agriculture Ministry spokesman Gert Hahne said.
Fears over eating raw vegetables have devastated the agriculture industry in Germany, with thousands of farmers and related businesses complaining of dramatic losses totalling some €5 million ($7.3 million) per day. Diplomatic tensions between Spain and Germany also arose after officials initially blamed Spanish cucumbers for the outbreak. Many farmers there and across the EU have been forced to destroy their crops just as harvest time arrived after consumer confidence in their produce collapsed, costing "unprecedented economic losses running into several million euros per day," according to European farmers union COPA-COGECA.
European Union agriculture ministers met to discuss potential aid for farmers at a crisis summit in Luxembourg on Tuesday, where EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos of Romania proposed the figure of €150 million ($219 million). The aid would equal roughly 30 percent of farmers' losses across the EU -- an amount rejected by both Spain and France, who called for 100 percent compensation.
A number of officials unleashed fierce criticism of Germany's approach to the crisis and its results in the European agriculture industry. Belgian Agriculture Minister Sabine Laruelle said that in contrast to Germany, which had been careless with food warnings that later proved false, farmers and food retailers had done nothing wrong. There is a delicate balance between caution and psychosis, she added.
"It is crucial that national authorities do not rush to give information on the source of infection that is not proven by bacteriological analysis, as this spreads unujustified fears (among) the population all over Europe and creates problems for our food producers," said EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli of Malta.
But Germany's Agriculture and Consumer Minister Ilse Aigner rejected the criticism, saying the E. coli outbreak was a "European problem" that required a European solution. She also said that produce warnings were justified because of the grave nature of potential infections. "This is about human lives," she said.