The cucumber scare: Spain absolved of guilt

Rumor of a European vegetable conspiracy, the suggestion that the E. coli epidemic was deliberately engineered to hurt Spanish and/or other European farmers thereby boosting their own agricultural sector, is the direct result of the EU’s distorted agricultural policy. But farmers world over stand to suffer, whether or not there was a conspiracy, because the global demand for fresh vegetables is falling.

Collusion theory

The “criminal” Spanish cucumbers did a lot of damage in Europe before being rehabilitated. Germany rushed to denounce Spanish cucumbers without bothering to collect proof, which is quite unlike the pedantic Germans. This sparked rumors abut a cucumber, or vegetable, conspiracy against Spain and its farmers.

Nor is this the first time something of the sort has happened. Several years ago, the United States banned the import of Peruvian grapes saying that they were tainted with cyanide. This pushed the grape industry in Peru to the brink; it later transpired that the scandal had been engineered by rival grape exporters.

But the cucumber scare is quite real, and besides, Europeans do not usually play such games.

Agriculture is a perennial headache for the EU, which spends over half its budget on subsidies to farmers, compensation payments for the gap between market prices and production costs, subsidies for using, or not using, fertilizers, payments for the storage of massive quantities of surplus farm produce, and the like.

The cucumber scandal is just one more aspect of that chronic disease afflicting the EU’s agricultural policy.

Spain threatens retaliation

Spanish farmers have calculated that they have been losing 200 million euros ($280 million) a week since May 21, when the first victim of the mutant E. coli strain died in Germany.

As many as 70,000 people may lose their jobs in Spain, which is a lot given the 21% unemployment in the country and the ongoing economic and financial crisis.

Denmark, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden and Belgium banned Spanish vegetable imports before Russia, while German health inspectors warned the general public against eating Spanish vegetables.

Agriculture generates 15% of Spain’s GDP and creates more than 300,000 jobs annually. Spanish farmers grow approximately 16 million tons of fruit and vegetables, more than half of them for export to other European countries. The cucumber scare has cut Spanish vegetable sales to 2,000 metric tons from its usual high of 70,000 metric tons, essentially paralyzing Spanish fruit and vegetable exports.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said the country’s government may initiate legal proceedings against Germany and demand compensation for the farmers’ losses.

The EU is considering paying compensation to Spain, which would at least prevent the Spanish government from suing Germany. But Spanish farmers’ associations have said they will pursue their compensation claims through the courts, with or without their government’s assistance.

Vegetables lose their charm

Although Spanish cucumbers have been absolved of guilt, farmers in Spain and other European countries still face numerous problems.

Stories like the cucumber scare have a tendency to run and run, because international consumers will continue to avoid Spanish cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables. They will cut down on vegetables imported from other countries too, just in case. Until scientists identify the source of the infection – which may never happen – Europe’s vegetable consumption will fall, as will farmers’ revenues.

The E. coli bacteria is found in the digestive systems of cows, humans and other mammals, but some E. coli strains, in particular the shiga toxin-producing one, can cause serious illness in humans. It is this strain that has provoked the current epidemic in Europe.

This is not the first such epidemic in Europe, but scientists are worried by its scale and the growing number of fatalities. The last time such a large epidemic was recorded was in Japan in 1993, when about 12,000 people were infected and 12 died. In 1996, 217 people fell ill in Britain and 11 died. Seven people died in a similar epidemic in Canada in 2000 and four in the United States in 1993.

“There has not been such an outbreak before that we know of in the history of public health,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The doctors say the disease can be avoided if people thoroughly wash their hands and any vegetables they intend to consume.

There have been other instances of food scares in the 21st century, the latest one came after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused an accident at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Russia, the United States, Australia, India, Singapore, Hong Kong and many other countries approved a partial ban on the import of Japanese fish and other foods.

A ban on the import of British beef to the EU because of BSE, commonly known as mad-cow disease, lasted nearly a decade, until 2006.

The EU did not import chicken meat from Thailand due to concerns over bird flu in 2004 and Irish pork and produce was banned because of dioxin contamination in 2008. The same year, the United States, the EU and Russia all banned the import of Chinese milk products that contained melamine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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