28th Jul 2021

Germany retracts link between E coli and Spanish cucumbers

Germany has conceded it is unsure whether Spanish cucumbers are the source of the country's recent E coli outbreak, fanning a pan-European row as plummeting vegetable sales continue to hurt producers.

Meanwhile the death toll continued to rise on Tuesday (31 May), with a Swedish woman succumbing to the bacteria after returning from a visit to Germany where 15 people have died.

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Officials in the northern German city of Hamburg said fresh tests carried out on Spanish cucumbers, initially cited as the most likely cause of the outbreak, may not be to blame after all.

Roughly 1000 suspected cases of infection have been reported across Europe, including over 300 people who are seriously ill.

As the tension mounted, Spanish agriculture minister Rosa Aguilar devoured a homegrown cucumber of national television to show her confidence in the oblong green vegetable, launching a blistering attack on Germany for its handling of the outbreak.

"Germany accused Spain of being responsible for the E coli contamination ... and it did it with no proof, causing irreparable damage to the Spanish production sector," Aguilar said.

Attending an informal meeting of EU agriculture ministers in Debrecen, eastern Hungary, Aguilar estimated the loss in vegetable sales was costing her country "more than €200 million a week".

Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden, Belgium and Russia are among country's to have banned Spanish cucumbers, although sales to German supermarkets were reported to have reopened on Wednesday morning, according to Spain's El Pais newspaper.

Also at the Hungary meeting, German agriculture secretary Robert Kloos said: "Germany recognises that the Spanish cucumbers are not the cause."

Hunting for a solution, Aguilar said all European vegetable producers who had experienced losses due the health scare should be compensated, a position that was echoed by the Netherlands, whose exports have also suffered.

"We need a European solution to a European problem," the Spanish minister said.

EU agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos indicated that he was willing to consider "all courses of action to aid producers", but added that his room for manoeuvre was limited.

In a statement, EU health and consumer policy commissioner John Dalli said a resolution to the ongoing issue was an "absolute priority", advising European citizens to apply common hygiene rules such as the washing of fruit and vegetables to limit the risk of contamination.

Amid the ongoing debate, Hamburg state health minister Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks defended her decision last week to link the German E coli outbreak with Spanish cucumbers.

"It would have been irresponsible with this number of ill people to keep quiet about a well-grounded suspicion," she said. "Protecting people's lives is more important than economic interests."

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