News / Europe

Mistakes in Handling E.Coli Outbreak Cause Furor

As European agriculture ministers hold an emergency meeting about the continent's spiraling E. coli outbreak, Spain is demanding full compensation to its farmers, after Spanish cucumbers were incorrectly identified as the bacteria's source.  But even as scientists still scramble to diagnose the origin, experts say this outbreak's legacy could be the huge furor over mistaken claims and compensation from the European Union. A top World Heath Organization official says the source of Germany's deadly E. coli outbreak may never be known. Dr. Guenael Rodier, WHO's director of communicable diseases, tells the Associated Press that investigators must find the culprit within a week.  He says after that, it would become difficult to link patients with what they ate.  Rodier says the contaminated vegetables have probably already disappeared from the market.

First it was cucumbers from Spain, then bean sprouts from Germany that fell under suspicion. But European Union officials acknowledge they still do not know the precise source of an E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 23 people, mostly in Germany.

At first, German officials suggested organic cucumbers from southern Spain were to blame.  But that turned out to prove false, and cost Spanish farmers hundreds of millions of euros in lost revenue.  Russia and other countries banned vegetable imports from Spain and then the rest of Europe altogether.

Spain's agriculture minister, Rosa Aguilar, is demanding full compensation from Germany for her country's farmers.

Aguilar says Germany must reimburse Spain for its losses.  She says that if Germany covers 100 percent, which is what Spain is demanding, then the matter will be closed.  But otherwise, she says Spain reserves the right to take legal action.

Experts say the issue of compensating farmers is difficult, however, before the exact source of contamination is known.  David Heymann is a global health security expert and professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  He says scientists are limited to testing the current vegetable supply - not the exact food that began sickening people two weeks ago.

"That doesn't mean that there could not have been contamination, for example, in the sprouts or in cucumbers.  The issue is that the studies that have been done on cucumbers that are available today, or on sprouts available today, have not shown that the organism is present.  But we're looking today, we're not looking two or three weeks back," Heymann said.

Nevertheless, the European agriculture commissioner has proposed a $220-million (150-million euro) aid package for farmers across Europe. That figure, if approved, would cover barely half of Spain's losses so far.  Still, the EU health commissioner, John Dalli, seemed to sympathize with Spain's position.

"I would like to stress that it is crucial that national authorities do not rush to give information on the source of infection, which is not proven by bacteriological analysis, as this spreads unjustified fears in the population all over Europe, and creates problems for our food producers selling products in the EU and outside of the EU," Dalli said.

Dalli told the European Parliament that scientists are still trying to pinpoint the outbreak's source.  He said that after officials jumped to conclusions about Spanish cucumbers, they should not do the same with German bean sprouts.

"While such intensive investigations are ongoing, we must be careful not to make premature conclusions.  In this respect, I want to refer to the latest information coming from Germany, regarding the suspicion that sprouts may be the source of contamination, which noted that tests have not been concluded and that consequently, premature conclusions have to be avoided," Dalli said.

After Dalli spoke, a Spanish delegate to the European Parliament waved a cucumber during his own speech, saying "We need to restore the honor of this vegetable."

Theatrics aside, scientists are still scrambling to find the bacteria's source, and European officials are trying to calm hysteria over further danger from E. coli.  More than 2,400 people are sick.  But Heymann says now that public health authorities are mobilized, they should be able to contain the outbreak - no matter the source.

"The source, if it can be found, is very useful because then you can prevent it from continuing or occurring again.  But even without the source, we know how to control this disease, and that's what's important.  Wash vegetables, wash fruits, be careful and cook them properly, and make sure that all surfaces on which these vegetables and fruits have been in contact, are cleaned as well," Heymann said.

Authorities say the outbreak is limited to northern Germany and people who have traveled there.  The EU health commissioner urged Russia and other countries to lift their import restrictions, saying they are not needed.

Heymann says the legacy of this E. coli outbreak, aside from 23 tragic deaths, could be how politicians jumped to conclusions about cucumbers or bean sprouts - devastating farmers' livelihoods, and prompting this huge compensation outcry.

"Because the statements are often made by politicians rather than public health people, they sometimes don't have all the evidence necessary, and they make a statement which later has to be rescinded.  What's important that in the future, the epidemiologists - the scientists, the technicians - work even closer with the politicians and the political leaders, to make sure that they're feeding messages that satisfy the political needs but which are also based on what evidence is available," Heymann said.

As EU ministers meet to quell the controversy, scientists say it is possible that they may never know the exact source of this E. coli outbreak.

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