The German government has made a bad situation worse. The E. coli outbreak, which has so far killed 26 people and made dozens of other people very sick, is serious enough in itself. But that cannot excuse the way the Hamburg regional government and the German federal government have mishandled the outbreak of the disease.
The outbreak does appear to have been geographically contained – those in other countries who became infected had some fairly direct contact with northern Germany.
Yet the consequences of the outbreak have been spread far and wide across Europe, by poor communication and lazy thinking.
Ironically, the European Union’s well-established procedures for handling diseases (which usually have no respect for national boundaries) have in this case amplified the effects of the outbreak.
The German government put an alert out about Spanish cucumbers on the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, which they retracted after one week. Too late. By that time, the damage had been done and the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers had been put in danger.
The rush to condemnation was unfortunate on various counts. Firstly, and most importantly, because it was wrong and therefore misled both national health authorities and the public. Secondly, because it had a distasteful finger-pointing overtone: the explicit message to the German population was that the cause was foreign and not local. That message was attractive to politicians, but, as it turned out, was not good science.
The lesson from countless previous health scares in Europe is that the first priority must be to get the science right. It is understandable that politicians are jittery. Food-scares have the potential to bring down governments – witness, for example, the effect of the dioxin scandal on Belgium’s election in 1999. Animal and food health scares have wrecked the careers of various government ministers. But that is all the more reason to keep in check politicians, whose self-interest in survival clouds their judgement.
The EU has in recent years experienced several food-chain alarms. Health ministers and farm ministers – and the layers of officials and veterinary experts beneath them – have learnt to work together to confront whatever the crisis might be. The experience of working through bovine spongiform encephalopathy, SARS, avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease and swine flu has had its beneficial effects, even though the death and destruction wrought by those diseases has been horrible. The member states have learned over the years that they must rally round and work together and support those countries that are most directly affected.
True, the BSE crisis was not the EU’s moment of greatest harmony, because for a long time the problem seemed to be confined to the United Kingdom. But when the problem affected other countries in continental Europe, the need to work together was belatedly recognised.
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That is what makes the initial handling of the E. coli outbreak so regrettable. The necessary spirit of co-operation is missing. The accusations against Spain injected a powerful note of distrust into the EU’s discussions.
The European Commission and the national veterinary offices will have to work hard to reassert common sense and re-establish trust. The EU’s single market in foodstuffs of all kinds depends on mutual respect for regulators, particularly food-safety agencies. A retreat towards relying only on home country regulators is neither desirable nor practical.
A final point: Germany’s political leadership should set this E. coli debacle in a broader political context. In the field of economic governance, Germany is lecturing various countries on their public finances and economic policy. Such lectures are unpopular at the best of times, but become doubly so when what looks like German hubris damages the livelihoods of European farmers. A show of humility from Germany about this E. coli outbreak would be prudent.