Spain_cucumber_scare_110531.jpgI have received a few emails complaining that Spanish cucumbers have been wrongfully maligned by Germany.  There has even been a call by the cucumber eating Spanish agricultural minister for compensation to Spain while E. coli victims still struggle in hospitals in a dozen countries, and where at least 19 families are attending funerals – go figure. 

Here is an email I received that I think does a great of explaining what German health officials were facing when they made the decision to implicate cucumbers – and also warn about tomatoes and lettuce:

It was a legitimate call by the Hamburg Health authorities to blow the whistle on Spanish cucumbers.

Reason 1: All the EHEC-stricken victims have quoted eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and salads which definitely makes these 3 vegetables prime suspect.

Reason 2: The German health authorities tested 4 cucumbers out of 1500 samples from vegetables sold in Hamburg and these 4 cucumbers ARE EHEC-infected. But they didn’t know the exact variant yet because it takes at least 4 days to a week to conclusively determine the correct strain is the one (HUS-41) killing the 17 EHEC deaths. 3 of these cucumbers come from Spain and 1 from Netherlands. So the Hamburg health authorities blew the whistle on Spanish cucumbers (knowing that they irrigated their export crops with shit in water fertilizer. It was either wait 1 week, have more people falling sick and dying or pre-alerting them. (That 1 cucumber from Netherlands they knew later after they had blown the whistle.)

NOTE : the 4 cucumbers ARE EHEC-infected. If they were not even EHEC-infected, I would agree with you at this point.

Then, the German doctors found out that the particular variant causing the HUS-41 EHEC fatalities is the O104 EHEC variant/strain.

Then they had to grow and culture some of it and match with the dead victims and found no, the 4 cucumbers which although are EHEC-infected, do not constitute the deadly O104 EHEC strain.

So source of infection is once more open, any body’s guess which are the actual culprits but the warning of no raw tomatoes, cucumbers and salads still exist. Would you eat these vegetables now, knowing the EHEC-infected victims had eaten these and had fallen sick in due course?

If you do, you have more guts than me. I won’t.

Me either.  And, further, German reports continue to support fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce – a salad – as the most likely vector:

In its latest report, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said the source of the outbreak has not been identified, but fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce from the northern part of the country “must be considered to have the highest relative risk for infection compared to other foods investigated,” and these raw vegetables should be avoided “until the definitive source of the outbreak has been identified.”

Describing the preliminary results of two more epidemiological studies, RKI said 46 patients with HUS or EHEC infection from Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck were questioned in detail from May 29 to June 2 about the foods they had eaten.

These cases were compared with 2,100 healthy individuals — the control group — matched for age, gender and region of residence. These were the results:

— Lettuce had been eaten by 84 percent of those ill, but only by 47 percent of the controls.

— Cucumbers had been eaten by 75 percent of those ill, but only 50 percent of the controls.

— Tomatoes had been eaten by 80 percent of those ill, but only 63 percent of the controls.

A total of 95 percent of those ill had eaten at least one of these vegetables.

In a second, separate study, investigators found that people who had eaten from the salad bar at a company canteen in Frankfurt were 7 times more likely to have developed bloody diarrhea than those who did not eat from the salad bar. There was no association with illness for other foods investigated, such as dessert, fruit and asparagus.

“These two unrelated and methodologically distinct studies support the results of the previously performed case control study,” RKI concluded, referring to an earlier epidemiological investigation conducted in Hamburg and published May 26.

Hopefully, the actual vector and traceback to the source, will happen.  Identifying the actual vector and tracing it back to the point of contamiantion, will be a teachable moment.

  • Mark Shakespeare

    This press event reminded me of the time when John Gummer tried to say that British Beef was totally fine in the midst of the Mad Cow revelations, he goes out and does a similar news event with him and his daughter eating beef burgers

    While replacing product testing using politicans maybe cheaper than using PCR’s, it is not quicker.

  • Your answer is very reasonable, and Im happy you clarify it with the note

    ” the 4 cucumbers ARE EHEC-infected. If they were not even EHEC-infected, I would agree with you at this point.”

    Perhaps we finally arrive to an agreement.

    1. As you say, two samples of Malaga’s cucumber were positive to EHEC according to Hamburg, but that doesn’t prove they were contaminated in the production site.

    The European reference Lab in Rome has to identify the serotype of the first samples where EHEC was found, these results may shed light on this issue.

    2. The results of the contradictory analysis initiated by the Spanish authorities on the samples that had tested positive for EHEC were found to be negative (this contradictory analysis were done in Hamburg).

    3. Samples analyzed by the Spanish health authorities during the investigation in the manufacturing industry (90 samples of products, irrigation water and soil) were also negative and were analyzed in the reference laboratory for E. coli in Spain.

    From the outset of the alert the European Commission said that the contamination could have occurred in post-production.

    4. Signaling in public Spanish cucumbers as the source of the outbreak was not going to stop in anyway to its evolution. Once an alert enters the RASFF system there is an immediate withdrawal and recall of the products and that is responsibility of the food operator, and it was correctly done. The fact is, as I noted in my first comment, the Malaga cucumbers had gone at least to four other location in Germany and no cases where notified in any this places (unless related to previous visit to northern Germany). Not to mention other locations out of Germany

    5. Simply matching in a map the human cases and the distribution of the suspected cucumbers on the 27th was revealing enough to look for other sources and to begin to investigate what had happened in the north of Germany around the second week of May instead and leave a confounding and very unlikely track.

    6. I am not very familiar to cucumber producing, but I will sure try to learn about it. Because Spain has specific regulations on the use of what we call organic fertilizer (you call it shit) and there are requirements related to previous fermentation of the shit to prevent E. coli and other pathogens in it, and also on the timing when it can be applied before the fruit are picked to assure its microbiological safety. And producers keep records on these treatments and of plenty other control points.

  • The question isn’t “was the call legitimate”, but rather “are farmers and other suppliers damaged by the erroneous call going to be compensated for their losses”?

    If you want farmers, grocers, shippers, restaurateurs, and the public to accept hair-trigger calls like this, calls that may save lives but which may also cause damage and destroy livelihoods (aka destroy lives in other ways), every stake-holder has to agree with the policies.

    The easiest way to get agreement is for those who suffer losses to be made whole.

    Making the various stake-holders whole is the cost of improving the reliability of the food production and distribution system. If they are not made whole, expect a whole lot of resistance and delay the next time there is a call like this. A delay that may cost lives.

  • Doc Mudd

    ** “NOTE : the 4 cucumbers ARE EHEC-infected.” **
    The Spanish cucumbers had E. coli contamination (just the “wrong” strain…this time).
    So, there was/is fecal contamination of produce from that source. One could reasonably argue the Spaniards have been feeding the Germans the same fecal matter long enough for everyone to have become immune, and it was only when a different strain of manure pathogen was fed them from another source that they got sick. But, it’s still fecal matter on the veggies, all the same.
    Seems to me Spanish producers need to stop mixing turds with the veggies before they can make a case for reparations or for special treatment. But my opinion on this detail is unpopular among organic growers here in the US, too.