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Timing of E. coli scare could push Spain into bailout territory

Published time: June 03, 2011 05:26
Edited time: June 03, 2011 10:29

Spain may launch legal action against Germany, which prematurely blamed its cucumbers for causing the deadly E. coli outbreak. The hysteria over Spanish produce has crippled the country's farm exports and cost millions of euros in just a week.

While the source of the infection is still undefined, critics believe the pharmaceutical industry may be the one to benefit from the vegetable panic.

Some cucumbers kill – that much is clear. It has also become apparent that, although Germany blamed Spain as the source of the E. coli, it is not the case. However, that is costing innocent Spanish fruit and vegetable exporters around 200 million euros a week.

Monserrat Cortinas, deputy secretary of the Union of Small Farmers, says that “all this maneuvering, all these statements show an absolute lack of responsibility. What is happening today is an endgame maneuver against the Spanish vegetable and fruit industry. It’s absolutely unacceptable. A useless ‘weapon’ has been produced which will be of no use to anyone – neither the Germans nor those who are suffering from the disease – and it will incur huge losses for Spanish agriculture.”

Calling the European health watchdog “discredited”, Russia says it had no choice but to ban all fruit and vegetable imports from the entire European Union, a reaction Brussels called “disproportionate”. Russia says it was clear from the beginning the Spanish were not to blame.

“It looks as if the accusations brought against the Spanish cucumbers were unfounded. This was obvious from the outset. Why? Well, if Spain was a source of the disease, why is no one ill there? It’s not as if Spain could hide the disease – this isn’t a mild flu you can keep secret,” says Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief medical and sanitary officer. “German health officials still cannot say what caused the outbreak or what the transfer factor of the disease is and, most importantly, the situation is still not under control. It's to the discredit of the European health watchdog.”

It is a very delicate time for the Spanish economy, which is teetering on the edge of needing an EU bailout. This is decidedly not a good moment for 150,000 tonnes of produce to go unsold. It has also struck another blow to the already fragile relationship between Germany and Spain – after the German chancellor implied that Spaniards were lazy and spendthrift in a speech earlier this month.

An epidemiologist, Dr. Richard North, points out that “the last major scare of this nature in Europe was not an infectious disease, it was the dioxin scare. And that was in Belgium.”

That has cost the Belgian economy billions and the same will happen in Spain.

“It will over time cost billions, simply because of the loss of product, loss of sales and disruption at this time, which is particularly an important time as the harvest comes through on perishable goods which you cannot hold back or resell,” he said.

Cynics say all this is just the media whipping up its latest health hysteria. In 2005, the United Nations warned the world that bird flu could kill up to 150 million people. In reality, the seven years till the end of 2010 saw 303 people die.

More recently, swine flu was the killer. 65,000 people were supposed to die in Britain alone, whereas is claimed around 360 lives. Encouraged by pharmaceutical companies, European countries spent billions of dollars on unnecessary vaccines. As the World Health Organization announces this is a new strain of E. coli, some see pharmaceutical companies benefiting yet again.

Economist William Engdahl says that we will very soon see new declarations from the large pharmaceutical companies, just as it happened with swine flu.

“[They will say that] that they have something to protect people against this new strain of E. coli that’s creating such unrest across Europe. I don’t think it’s at all justified, this level of panic that we see,” Engdahl said.

All these health scares adversely affected economies and this one looks no different, and Germany’s baseless accusations may be what finally pushes Spain into bailout territory.

Spain will now seek reparations from the relevant authorities in Europe, after its prime minister criticized the European Commission for not supporting his country enough, particularly after the infection was proven not to have come from Spanish cucumbers. Spain has a titan task ahead of it – repairing its reputation as a reliable exporter of fruit and vegetables all over the EU. A position essential to its ailing economy.

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