The World from Berlin 'Crises Like the E. Coli Outbreak Require Central Management'

Sluggish and seriously flawed. That is how an increasing number of people in Germany are beginning to see the country's response to the ongoing deadly E. coli outbreak. It is time, say media commentators, for a coordinated response.
German Health Minister Daniel Bahr, who only got the job last month, is having a baptism of fire.

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr, who only got the job last month, is having a baptism of fire.

Foto: Jens Büttner/ dpa

Cucumbers? Tomatoes? Lettuce? Sprouts? There have been several theories proposed and tested in the effort to find the causes of Germany's E. coli outbreak. So far though, authorities have largely come up empty.

Experts have been quick to point out that pinning down the source of such an outbreak is inexact science, at best. But an increasing number of voices in Germany have also begun blaming the government's crisis response. Opposition politicians and health experts have accused the government in recent days of underestimating the threat posed by the epidemic.

On Tuesday, German media commentators are saying that the government's response to the crisis has been sluggish and ill-coordinated. The country, they say, is surprisingly ill-equipped to handle outbreaks on this scale because of its complex bureaucratic structures and regionally fragmented division of responsibilities. Experts say Germany's alert system is rudimentary compared to those in other developed nations.  Furthermore, commentators point out that there is no central authority in charge of the crisis management.

The most recent complication came on Monday, with health officials reporting that they have found no evidence  that bean sprouts from an organic farm in Bienenbüttel in northern Germany caused the epidemic. That admission came just one day after the regional government of Lower Saxony had pinpointed the farm as a probable source on Sunday.

Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner has dismissed the criticism as "cheap opposition sniping" and denied that there was a problem. "There is no wrangling over responsibilities," not at all, she told ARD television late on Monday. "The authorities are working around the clock," she said, adding that now was not the time to discuss the structure of Germany's medical system.

Media commentators beg to differ.

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"Why did authorities look at Spanish cucumbers so long and so intensely in their search for the E. coli source when a closer look revealed them to be innocent? Why did the E. coli hunters not focus much sooner on the sprouts from Lower Saxony?"

"Last June, almost a year ago to the day, the Federal Institite for Risk Assessment warned of the high 'bacterial contamination of sprouts and kitchen-ready salad mixtures'. It expressly warned of E. coli bacteria, which in the worst case could cause kidney damage. The warning was updated as recently as early May. Why didn't the alarm bells go off at the agency when E. coli patients in northern Germany reported having eaten a lot of raw produce and salad?"

"There appears to be a lack of coordination between the national government and the regional states, between national institutes and ministries. The source of the outbreak may not be found -- because the suspicion was raised too late and the investigation came too late. The contaminated produce may have been eaten long ago. But the fear and uncertainty will remain."

"The current E. coli epidemic shows once again that the national and regional governments, ministries and authorities must be better equipped for such an emergency -- mainly to be able to respond more quickly."

Berlin daily Tagesspiegel writes:

"Organic is good, chemicals are bad. We get this message drummed into us every day. It is a macabre irony that evil chemistry -- in the form of antibiotics and other drugs as well as gene technology in the form of bio-engineered drugs -- is now saving people whose lives have been endangered by organic food. If the suspicions are proved correct."

"The public focuses on the supposed risks of industrial farming such as pesticide residues, even though these are so small that they pose no danger. Or genetically-manipulated maize, which is harmless but treated as hazardous waste. The 'German Angst' dictates the laws and is blinding people to the real risks. The E. coli epidemic shows that it is nature that poses the true danger to food, despite the organic food cult."

"Organic foods are not proven to be healthier than conventionally produced food, and sometimes they are more dangerous. One reason is the lack of artificial pesticides. The liquid manure, dung and compost used as pesticides can contain pathogens. The tendency towards raw, natural and untreated food also has its dangers. Unpasteurized raw milk is a frequent source of E. coli outbreaks."

Left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau writes:

"The federalist complexity is once again having disastrous consequences. Regional authorities are jealously protecting their powers. The Robert Koch Institute, for example, isn't allowed to question patients: that's the domain of regional authorities! Crises of this dimension require central management and coordination -- a structure for pan-regional solidarity."

-- David Crossland
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