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Friday, 3 June 2011

Russia says “nyet” to European vegetables, as a consequence of the EHEC bacterium outbreak. Scientists in the meantime, are nowhere near finding a smokin´ gun.

Last week I wrote a number of articles on the EHEC bacterium that has Germany and the Western European countries in its grip:

This continuing and rapidly expanding story around the entero-hemorrhagic Escherichia coli O104:H4 bacterium (EHEC) has reached another level, with the Russian Government putting a total ban on European fresh vegetables.

The Russian Newspaper ‘Komsomolskaya Pravda’ writes an article about the reasons behind the Russian ban on European vegetables (link in Russian, translated by Google Translate; edited by EL). Here are the pertinent snips of this article:

Medical-director Gennady Onishchenko of Rosprotrebnadzor has forbidden imports of fresh vegetables from the European Union.

The highest representative from the Russian institute on Consumer Health & Safety ‘Rospotrebnadzor’,  Gennady Onishchenko, gave the order to ban cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables grown in the EU from June 2 until further notice, after he already promised such a ban last week. Onishchenko stated, that he has been following the situation with EHEC in Germany for about a month and mentioned that the German and European representatives of Public Health failed to come with a sane response on the cause of this outbreak.

Europe has not been able yet to find the source of this E. coli, causing already more than 2000 people to be seriously and sometimes life-threateningly ill in an increasing number of European countries. The initial suspects – Spanish cucumber – don’t seem to be the source for this large outbreak after all. Although the source of infection is thus still questionable, Russian experts recommend not to eat fresh vegetables from the EU. Meanwhile, the situation escalates. In only one day, in Europe nearly 400 people fell ill with symptoms of severe poisoning (bloody diarrhea, fever, vomiting). Until now 17 people (mostly women) have died, mainly due to kidney failure.

Where until now the sick people where only residents of Germany or tourists that visited the country and returned home, the infection is spreading out to Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.Yesterday, the first case of poisoning was recorded in the Czech Republic.The bacterium is very hard to battle, as it not even responds to modern medicine.

According to Gennady Onishchenko:” Europe has too liberal standards for usage of antibiotics in poultry meat, and other food products. As a consequence, people collect so many tiny bits of antibiotics through meat consumption, that resistance is formed. When antibiotics are prescribed as a medicine, it doesn’t work anymore”. “It is a crazy situation”, according to an expert of the Consumer Rights Protection Society, Roman Gaidash. “Never before vegetables contained such dangerous pathogens. Already 17 people have died, which is much too much”.

The pathogen got obviously on the vegetables via the soil. Some people blame the usage of organic fertilizers. Others look at the place where the vegetables grow, as there might be poultry farms around. Otherwise it is very difficult to explain why such a large number of people are poisoned.
The ban, introduced by Gennady Onishchenko, is a quite adequate measure. It can be removed in a single day, when the source of the infection has been found and it is clear that the produce for Russia cannot be infected. It is not clear yet if this outbreak is caused by ‘nature’ or by people’s foul play. At least the import ban is applauded by China and Turkey, who are currently in the picture as suppliers of produce to Russia.
The reflex of the European Union to this Russian ban was to see it as an exaggerated, disproportional reaction. European Commissioner John Dalli (Health and Consumer Policy) will therefore ask Moscow for an explanation and will urge the Russians to abolish this ban.

I don’t agree here with the European Union and not because my wife is Russian. The outbreak is now going on for almost a month and we are nowhere near finding a smoking gun for it. After the Spanish cucumbers and Dutch cucumbers and tomatoes were accused of being the smoking gun, we now know exactly as much as when the outbreak first occurred: nothing.

The situation reminds me strongly of the situation around Fukushima Dai-Ichi: the doomed Japanese nuclear reactor. With Fukushima the information supply of the authorities was to say the least “puzzling”. Also the German information supply is a mixture of false accusations, smoke and mirrors.

That I not disagree with the Russian ban on European fresh vegetables, doesn’t mean that I don’t see the economic implications for the Dutch and European market gardeners. Russia alone imports almost €600 mln in fresh vegetables from Europe and the Dutch share of these exports is very large.

But instead of looking angry at the Russians, Europe should rather hurry up in finding the solution. Also the USA is not very pleased about the way the European Union handles this EHEC crisis. This also might eventually lead to an American import ban on fresh vegetables from Europe. And then the shit is really hitting the fan.

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