Anytime a bunch of politicians go on television to eat cucumbers, you know something is up. On Monday, there was Clara Aguilera, agriculture councilwoman for the region of Andalucia, pointedly biting into a whole cuke. A day later it was the turn of Mariano Rajoy, head of Spain’s opposition Popular Party, and Esperanza Aguirre, president of the regional government of Madrid to do the same with a mercifully sliced version. These days, the local media is full of images of politicians stuffing their faces with elongated green vegetables. It’s a sign of just how desperate the situation for Spain has become in the wake of Germany’s E. coli outbreak, as well as how tense trade relations between the two nations and elsewhere have become.
One week after it began, the so-called “cucumber crisis” shows no signs of abating. Already 17 people have died and 1,500 have fallen ill, including a handful of victims in Sweden, Spain, the Czech Republic, and the U.K. . The World Health Organization today announced that the strain of E. coli involved is a never-before-seen mutation, while the European Commission has lifted its warning against Spanish vegetables, noting that the origins of the outbreak remain undetermined.
But that clarification came only after German officials prematurely attributed the problem to cucumbers imported from two Andalusian farms. Although the vegetables in question did test positive for the bacteria, they proved to contain a different strain of E. coli than the deadly enterohaemorrhagic one at the root of this outbreak. In the meantime, grocery chains throughout Europe have suspended their orders, and Russia went so far as to ban all produce imports from Spain and Germany. On June 2, it went further, blocking all imports from the entire European Union. The financial cost to Spanish agriculture, which exports roughly 9% of its produce to Germany has been enormous, with the government estimating losses of 200 million euros in the first week of the crisis.
Costa de Almera is one of the agricultural collectives that was originally accused of contamination. Even with its name cleared, however, the company is not seeing sales pick up. The collective has already dismissed most of its 250-person crew, and has lost an estimated 500,000 euros in revenue, after it was forced to throw out much of its cucumber harvest. And the damage is hardly over. “We have 550,000 kilos of cucumbers that we can keep in storage for three days,” says Pelegrn Garca, Costa de Almera’s director of financial administration. “After that, we’ll be destroying them as well.”
Nor is it just the cucumber farmers who are affected. Juan Antonio Baos, president of the agricultural cooperative Ejidomar, laughed bitterly when questioned if his company, which grows only melons and zucchini, was also suffering. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “Prices are in the dirt. Before this we were getting .45 a kilo for melons, and now it’s .18 or .20.” His company too has had to let some of their workers go and this in a region that already has the highest unemployment rates in Spain.
Both men blame German imprudence for their losses. “It’s not just that they accused us without evidence,” says Garca. “They also leaked these accusations to the media rather than going the proper channels. I found out about the problem when I showed up to work last Thursday, and there was a battery of television cameras waiting.”
The false accusation, coupled with what he called the “slowness” of the European Commission’s response, prompted Spanish Prime Minister Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero to announce today that he would demand “sufficient reparations” from the European Union. His agriculture minister, Rosa Aguilar, had already gone further, noting at a June 1 meeting of European agriculture ministers that, “We reserve the right to hold Germany to account in this affair, and consequently we also ask for Germany to contribute financially to compensate the damage caused to Spanish production.” The two cooperatives originally cited as sources of the infection are also considering legal action against Germany, for both financial and moral damages.
No one is sure, however, that those actions will work. “It’s incredibly complicated to see how Spain could take Germany to court,” says Roger Waite, spokesman for the European agriculture commissioner, Decian Ciolos. “Who would bring the suit? Under what law? It’s not at all clear what would happen if it were Spain vs. Germany, except that it would take years. And the Spanish producers who are suffering right now don’t have years.” See more health news in Healthland.
Nor is it immediately clear whether the European Union as a whole has a legal framework to say nothing of the will to compensate farmers. Next week, agriculture experts from the E.U.’s member states will meet to try to determine the extent of the financial damage and whether there is a basis to initiate reparations. Even if there is, notes Waite, the earliest that producers could see any payment would be October 16 which is a long way away for farms that, with the cucumber season in southern Spain drawing to a close, have just lost the better part of their crop.
In the meantime, there promises to be plenty of accusations to go around. Some Spanish growers see nefarious intent in Germany’s original accusation. “Is this a hidden attack on our agricultural trade?” asks Campo de Almera’s Garca. “Let’s just say we growers are well accustomed to Germany’s efforts to kick us out of the market.”
But it’s not just internal trade relations that are at stake. The European press has already made note of the fact that Russia’s expansion of its ban to include fresh vegetables including those already on shelves from the entire European Union will benefit the country’s own domestic farmers at the start of their growing season. Today the European Commission contacted Russian authorities today to express its displeasure with a reaction it calls “disproportionate” and more meetings between the two parties are expected next week.
None of this will be resolved, of course, while the culprit remains unknown. Today, German scientists expanded their testing to include milk, meat, and even bottled water in their search for the origins of an infection that, yesterday alone, sent 120 more people to the hospital. “It’s hard to reassure people,” says European Commission spokesperson Waite, “when we still don’t know what the cause is.”
See a special report on the science of appetite.