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E. Coli: What The Cucumber War Says About What Ails Europe

Europe was thrown into turmoil after Germany falsely accused Spanish cucumbers of carrying the deadly E. coli bacteria. A true test of EU solidarity.

(ssoosay)
(ssoosay)
Jean-Marc Vittori

It sounds like an Agatha Christie mystery. In the Hamburg region of Germany, people start dying, one after the other. The murder weapon is found rapidly: it is the terrible Escherichia coli bacteria. Local authorities, followed closely by European institutions, identify the culprit, a sturdy neighbor from Spain: Señor Cucumber. The entire world starts hunting him down. People boo him, reject him and finally outlaw him. But eventually it turns out they had the wrong man. According to latest information, the real murderer could in reality be the skinny Mr. Bean Sprouts.

We could almost smile at all this if only "no one had died," to quote French politician Jack Lang. We could smile if the crisis had not been accompanied by such a waste of food and money, with thousands of tons of produce thrown away and hundreds of farmers nearly ruined. A crisis on this scale should not go to waste. We must draw lessons from it.

In the era of instant information, governed by the almighty Internet and Twitter, reputation is a big issue, and slander is a much greater danger than it used to be. Reputation can be destroyed in many ways: a fake spy scandal for Renault, the explosion of an oil rig for BP, controversial layoff schemes for Danone, and the list goes on. But the danger is particularly serious when a product's quality is challenged, and especially when that product is food. We saw this when benzene was found in Perrierdrinks, and during the mad cow crisis.

This time, the negative impact of the general fear is huge. The E. coli outbreak has dramatically crushed the entire production of Spanish cucumbers. Dutch cucumbers were also shunned. Cucumber sales at the French wholesale food market Rungis plunged by 95%, and tomato sales by 40%. False information can kill real businesses, with real employees. The pressure to find the culprit can only mount.

The crisis does provide a chance to discover some surprising facts on Europe and the cucumber. The Germans are addicts of the green gourd. They gobble down 640,000 tons of cucumber each year (20g per inhabitant per day). The biggest producers are the Netherlands and Spain. The Dutch developed their production after World War II, and remained the continent's biggest producer until the turn of the century, thanks to intensive farming (70kg per square meters, 100 times more than the production of wheat!). Their production, however, has been stagnating at just over 400,000 tons for the last two decades. As for the Spanish, they have developed less intensive farming methods, with a yield ten times smaller. But their production has been growing steadily, doubling over the last 15 years and peaking at nearly 700,000 tons last year. And Poland is catching up.

The cucumber crisis is clearly a European crisis. Thriving under the protection of Europe's common agricultural policy, cucurbits have attracted the Union's attention for some time. In its famous regulation No. 1677/88 of June 1988, Brussels laid down the standard qualities for cucumbers (this included rules on crooked cucumbers, which may have a "maximum height of the arc of 10 mm per 10 cm of length of the cucumber").

By relaying Hamburg's false accusations on the source of the E. coli epidemic, the European Union has exacerbated the nasty fight between two big EU countries, Germany and Spain. So one feels entitled to ask, what is the future for an EU that skirmishes over cucumbers? Can EU countries be expected to manage a tool as important as the single currency when they are unable to overcome a contaminated veggie scandal? At this point of the story, we could lose hope. The cucumber crisis resembles a rural remake of the European public debt crisis, with many identical actors in neighboring roles. But the good news is that Mr. Zapatero and Ms. Merkel have managed to have a normal conversation about cucumbers. And the European commission is now planning to offer compensation to the farmers who have suffered losses. In other words, there are signs of European solidarity. This is just the solidarity it will take to recover from the public debt crisis. All is not lost.

Read the original article in French

photo - ssoosay

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👋 Sawubona!*

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[*Swati, Eswatini and South Africa]

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