The World from Berlin Germans Soul Search over Handling of E. Coli Crisis

As scientists continue searching for the cause of the current E. coli crisis in Germany, and hospital staffs work around the clock to save lives of those infected, domestic and international criticism continues over the country's handling of the issue. German commentators offer myriad takes Wednesday on the most appropriate response.
The handling of the E. coli epidemic in Germany has unleased domestic and international criticism.

The handling of the E. coli epidemic in Germany has unleased domestic and international criticism.

Foto: Markus Scholz/ dpa

The public outcry at home and abroad over how the current E. coli crisis in Germany has been handled has been intense. And frustration, both within the country and elsewhere, is deep.

Twenty-six people have died so far from the virulent and deadly O104:H4 strain of E. coli that has sickened more than 2,600 others across Europe and as far away as the United States. Most of the cases have been traced to near Hamburg in northern Germany, and despite early warnings that the bacteria came from imported Spanish cucumbers, and then, later, from north German bean sprouts, the cause of the infections remains unclear.

The Consumer Protection Ministry in Lower Saxony, however, said on Wednesday that it has found additional indications that bean sprouts from a farm in the town of Bienenbüttel may, in fact, be to blame. Ministry spokesman Gert Hahne said that 18 E. coli patients in the area ate sprouts from the farm. Furthermore, three farm workers fell ill.

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr told German TV Wednesday that the country expects more deaths from the E. coli infections, though the number of new cases will likely drop. Chinese authorities announced that they would be increasing their health checks on passengers arriving into the country from Germany.

With Spanish farmers demanding compensation for agricultural losses, and German farmers losing millions of euros a day in unsold produce, the government has been criticized for being flat-footed in its response to the crisis. Much of the criticism has focused on how a decentralized system failed to produce one agency or authority responsible for tracking the source of the infections.

German commentators Wednesday take a look at the country's fragmented response, with some demanding that at the very least there needs to be a centralized way of informing the public about serious health threats like O104:H4.

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Why didn't the crisis management lie in the hands of an institute? Why is there, in addition to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI, Germany's center for disease control), also a Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), and to further complicate matters, also a federal agency for consumer protection and produce safety (BVL)? Why not combine these three organizations into one, solid institution?"

"These questions are being asked more and more often. But there is an answer ready for them. Germany had such a super-agency at one time, the Federal Health Agency (BGA) that, after a series of scandals, was disbanded in 1994. The final straw for the agency was a scandal involving HIV-tainted blood preparations. The three federal authorities and the pharmaceutical authority in Bonn subsequently assumed the agency's tasks. The splitting of different capacities successfully allowed for, among other things, simultaneous controls. At the former Federal Health Agency, this system of checks and balances was absent, so many problems were just swept under the rug. The HIV scandal was only one of them."

"Before we quickly demand another super agency, an in-depth analysis is needed of the weak spots during the management of this crisis."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Someone is always to blame, nothing happens by chance, so someone always must take responsibility for damages. We have gotten used to this apparently logical principle. Politicians, farmers and consumers are reacting accordingly to the E. coli infections. They are demanding high compensation payments, and reprimands for scientists who made erroneous statements and ministers for supposed communications chaos."

"One could just as well assign blame for the rain in the past few days. According to our current knowledge, no one is to blame for the current E. coli epidemic. A dangerous mutation of intestinal bacteria is a result of nature, just like the flu, which kills 15,000 people in Germany each year. The many demands and criticisms floated in recent days only betray our powerlessness against it."

"The invalid criticism lobbed at the federal ministries for consumer protection and health is uncalled for. Both have informed within the realm of their responsibilities, and not stood in the way of the scientists. In such a situation, one cannot ask for much more."

The tabloid Bild writes:

"The worries of consumers have rarely been so irresponsibly handled as in the case of these E. coli infections. Agricultural ministries, health authorities, research institutions, and clinics -- everyone is getting involved in the search for the 'killer germs.' And they make sure that with each overly hasty public statement there is greater uncertainty."

"It can't be that a state-level minister in Lower Saxony first claims that sprouts are the likely cause of the E. coli infections, goes on to name the farm where they came from, and then on the next day results from tests on the sprouts prove negative."

"Stunned, one asks oneself, 'Who is coordinating all of these so-called experts?' Why is there no central clearinghouse to which all clues could be sent, vetted, and then when confirmed, be made public? After the swine flu, mad cow disease and now E. coli, it is clear: Germany needs a central office for national disease control!"

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The main complaint from many countries, issued by the European Parliament and also the European Commission, is of communication problems  on the German side. In the case of the E. coli infections, it is considered problematic how little is known three weeks into the crisis about the origin and development of the epidemic, yet how much crop damage  has been done by German blame to the European farming industry."

"In the case of the Germany's phase-out of nuclear power, the country has been criticized for not doing enough consulting, and others fear a distortion of the energy market."

"The crucial issue is where this lack in communication originated. Can it be blamed on shaky and incompetent political dealings and disorganization (jumbled federalism)? That would be bad enough. Or is it an example of a new German hubris, stubbornly following its own path? Only Angela Merkel knows the real answer."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"The most important question is: Was and is enough being done to get to the source of the pathogen as soon as possible? Confusion over how the infections spread is not only a public health issue, but also the main problem for all information policy, regardless of which federal or state politician ineptly releases his or her information."

"It is worthwhile to take a critical look at the federal level, before one follows the well-loved path of blaming federalism as the general cause of lack of competence and cacophony. Because what can one think when one of the institutes, that one trusts in such situations, takes days to send around the relevant questionnaires to clinics, instead of forming a task force right away? And what happened to further cooperation, when there are other agriculture and health agencies responsible for the issue, and still weeks after the infections started there is not a single homepage where people can go and find all available information?"

"Informing the public about such health dangers is always a tightrope walk. No governmental organization can change that. But perhaps structures and responsibilities can be created, to keep those tightrope walks brief and rare. The bitter realization is that, in this crucial area, Germany is currently setting a bad example."

-- Mary Beth Warner
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