E.Coli Outbreak Undermines European Food Security

8 June 2011 FDI Team

Background

The recent E.Coli outbreak across Europe, which has resulted in as many as 22 deaths, illustrates some of the many challenges to food security in a globalised world. Food security is not just an issue of quantity and availability but also of quality. It is a problem that is also faced by the developed world.

Comment

The E.Coli outbreak first began in May in Germany, with more cases later being confirmed across Europe. So far, 22 deaths have been reported and over 2,000 people have fallen ill, with an estimated 600 in intensive care. The deadly strain of the E.Coli bacterium has yet to be tracked to its source, with Spanish cucumbers and German sprouts both having been implicated at various times.

The losses for European farmers resulting from the outbreak are staggering. Demand has plummeted, and tens of thousands of kilograms of fresh fruit and vegetables are being destroyed. Farmers are also being confronted with the additional disposal costs, as well as loss of revenue. The German Farmers’ Association reports that German farmers are losing an estimated €30 million in sales per week. A producers’ association in Spain estimates a Spanish loss of €200 million a week nationwide, while Portuguese officials estimate that farmers lost €2 million in the first week of the outbreak alone. This is confirmed by Phillipe Binard of the European Fresh Produce Association, who claims that the €1 billion weekly turnover of fresh fruit and vegetables in Europe is now ‘virtually at standstill.’ One German cucumber grower estimates that he destroyed nearly two million cucumbers and tomatoes in a day following the outbreak. Restaurants, grocery stores and other users of fresh produce are also feeling the impact.

There has been a consequential drop in the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables across Europe. German consumers are being warned to avoid raw vegetables. Russia has taken the drastic move of banning the import of fresh fruit and vegetables from Europe, a considerable blow as Russia is the European Union’s largest export market for fresh produce. The UK is considering a ban on fresh German produce and, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has increased surveillance on all fresh fruit and vegetables being imported from Spain and Germany. It has even been suggested that fresh produce sales in the US will be affected by the outbreak, until there is clarification on the source of the contamination, and consumers regain their confidence in food safeguards. This reflects the sensitivity of consumer demand and confidence, particularly in the developed world, where discerning consumers have greater alternative food sources and demand stricter standards of food safety and surety than ever before.

European Agriculture Ministers are convening in Luxembourg to address the outbreak. Their agenda will include a response to the Russian ban; a European response to the outbreak; and, most contentiously, it will address the issue of compensation. Agriculture has traditionally been a highly protected sector in the EU, and farmers expect that they will be compensated for the costs they have suffered. Spanish cucumber growers, in particular, are calling for compensation of at least €584 million and a formal apology, after Spanish cucumbers were initially alleged to be the source of the outbreak. The public pressure for political action to combat the spread of the outbreak and alleviate the costs to producers and consumers, is indicative of the central role to be played by governments in addressing food security crises, as well as the need for timely government responses.

The outbreak underscores the difficulties of following a pathogen through the complex food supply chain. It is the difficulty experts face in trying to identify and isolate the source of contamination, that leads to the mass disposal of potentially uncontaminated produce, as well as the cost-inducing finger-pointing that has been seen over the last week. Furthermore, the outbreak indicates the rapid spread of any contaminant in the globalised world, with cases of the deadly E.Coli strain being reported in both the US and Canada, following visits to Germany. While it appears that this E.Coli strain was an accidental contaminant, the difficulty faced by European and other world governments in dealing with this outbreak, reflects ominously ongovernments’ ability to deal with food that might be intentionally contaminated in an act of bioterrorism.

The E.Coli outbreak illustrates all too grimly the side of food security that is often overlooked, that of food quality. In an increasingly globalised market, the economic impact of a single incidence of contamination is amplified tenfold. In the case of Europe, the costs are still mounting, with no foreseeable end in sight.

Prue Campbell

Future Directions International Research Intern

Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

 

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