The Spanish Cucumber Pickle

Eight children in France have been infected with E. coli after ingesting beef burgers sold by the supermarket chain Lidl. This strain of bacteria found in beef differs from the strain of E. coli responsible for the outbreak in Germany. Officials are waiting for more information before identifying the exact source, as to avoid repeating the situation where Spanish cucumbers were falsely accused of being the culprit behind the E. coli outbreak in Germany. The investigation carried out by German authorities has been criticized for announcing premature conclusions adversely affecting the European agricultural sector. German officials now better understand the source of the E. coli outbreak, identifying bean sprouts as the likely cause; however, their handling of the situation demonstrates the need for national governments to defer to international entities in making statements regarding infectious outbreaks.

The source of the virulent E. coli strain EHEC-0104 has been successfully linked to bean sprouts originating from a farm in Lower Saxony, Germany. While the contamination of this new strain of E. coli bacteria has been contained to farms in the northern German region, the scare has had global repercussions. This new strain of E. coli has killed 37 people and sickened more than 3,000 across 14 countries in Europe in addition to Canada and the United States.

German authorities tested cucumbers from southern Spain and originally publicized concerns that cucumbers were a possible source of the outbreak. Consequently, vegetable exports from Spain suffered losses estimated at 200 million euros ($290 million dollars) per week as well as destroying thousands of kilos of fresh vegetable crops. Russia initially banned vegetable imports from Spain, and then extended the embargo to all EU countries. This hasty accusation against the cucumber caused fury among Spanish farmers and authorities alike, as bean sprouts are the most probable culprit to carry E. coli. Bean sprouts have been implicated in prior E. coli outbreaks in Japan and the U.S. and are grown in water heated to 38 degrees Celsius, the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to thrive.

German authorities have withdrawn their suspicions about Spanish cucumbers and have confirmed that German bean sprouts are the origin of contamination. The EU Health Commissioner John Dalli condemned the act of blaming the Spanish cucumber for the outbreak and advised, “It's crucial that national authorities don't rush to give information on the source of infection when it's not justified by the science.”

While it is dangerous to announce sources of infection without firm data, one might argue that health officials have the responsibility to inform citizens of possible contamination as soon as possible. For officials to withhold suspicions about the origin of the outbreak can be equally dangerous and even considered irresponsible and unethical. It is evident a double standard is in effect and that both methods have their costs.

The Spanish cucumber debacle has exposed deficiencies in procedures for dealing with global issues on a national and multinational level. Politicians tend to make announcements without having adequate evidence or understanding. To avoid the economic and political costs of rescinding statements, scientists, health officials, and national and international political figures must collaborate to gain a holistic understanding of the situation. Only then can they make objective, factual statements that will fulfill their obligations of transparency and accountability to the public.

The mere accusation of E. coli in Spanish cucumbers, regardless of its verity, has harmed not only economies but relations between Germany and Spain. Due to the close ties between EU nations, the E. coli outbreak in Germany is not a national issue but a transnational one. Instead of working solely on a national level, Germany should have combined its efforts with other EU nations so as to not issue their own accusations about the source of E. coli. A higher degree of collaboration between implicated nations ensures all parties have equal access to information and avoids harmful accusations. Greater mutual effort among nations is necessary in order to handle infectious outbreaks efficiently and harmoniously.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons