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A battered Germany recovers from E. coli outbreak

But Berlin's reputation is left muddied as it faces questions about the time it took to identify the source — a farm in Lower Saxony — and the haste with which it had initially blamed produce from European neighbors.

June 11, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from London — Salad is back on the menu in Germany, but it's being served with a big helping of humble pie.

Investigators concluded Friday that bean sprouts grown in northern Germany were responsible for the country's worst recorded outbreak of E. coli infections. Lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers — suspects originally blacklisted as vegetables non gratae — can now be welcomed back in from the culinary cold.

But rehabilitating Germany's reputation may prove a tougher task. The food scare has claimed at least 30 lives, sickened nearly 3,000 people, stirred up anger at home and strained relations with European neighbors.

A nation perceived to epitomize crisp efficiency and scientific savvy, Germans are now under fire for taking so long to identify the source of the lethal bacteria, failing to provide the public with clear information and wrongly accusing Spanish cucumbers of being the carrier.

Suddenly, Germany, which routinely chides its neighbors for economic mismanagement and other sins is finding itself uncomfortably on the defensive. As the continent's biggest economy and most populous country, Germany is used to bossing smaller European nations around, especially those in need of its help amid the ongoing euro debt crisis. But it is now under pressure to explain a series of missteps that turned a public-health scandal into a political debacle and made the country that gave us the term "schadenfreude" a victim of it.

"There was a complete communications disaster that was going down," said Joerg Forbrig, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund.

Berlin's fumbling response has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for farmers across the European Union and sparked a war of words between leaders. Citing safety concerns, Russia and Saudi Arabia blocked all imports of produce from the EU.

Moscow rescinded its ban Friday after German health officials said they had finally determined the source of the outbreak, which began in early May. Interviews with patients, restaurants and suppliers allowed investigators to whittle their list of suspects down to bean sprouts grown on an organic farm in Lower Saxony, near the village of Bienenbuettel.

Officials had identified the farm as a potential culprit a few days earlier but weren't sure. No tainted produce has actually been found – it may have all been consumed or tossed out by now. But Reinhard Burger, head of Germany's national disease-control agency, said the pathway of the bacteria's spread clearly leads back to the farm.

"It's the sprouts," Burger told reporters.

Officials likened their investigation to a crime thriller as they raced to identify the "bad guy."

But many in Europe have already decided on a villain: the German government.

Its rush to judgment against Spanish cucumbers was based on incomplete science and even a thinly veiled xenophobia, say critics who ask why German health officials apparently failed to first look in their own backyard. No matter that officials retracted their May 26 accusation a few days later; in a world of Twitter and the Internet, where word spreads faster than disease, the damage was done.

Spanish farmers were forced to let tons of their harvest rot. As Germany struggled to find the source of the E. coli, Dutch produce fell under suspicion as well, then food from other European nations such as Portugal and Italy.

It didn't help that some of these countries already saw Germany as smug and imperious. Throughout the ongoing euro debt crisis, for example, Berlin has tried to dictate the terms of bailout packages for Athens, Dublin and Lisbon, and lectured other countries on how to manage their finances and be more competitive.

"Now here's another shock from Germany on those countries," Forbrig said. "It's seen as another example of a certain degree of clumsiness on the part of Germany when it comes to addressing…Europe-wide issues."

As agriculture-dependent nations like Spain and Portugal reeled, the leader of industrial powerhouse Germany, Angela Merkel, was in Washington this week accepting a medal from President Obama and being feted at a state dinner. (The meal started off with a "chopped salad" that, the White House seemed to note rather pointedly, was made with vegetables mostly from its own garden.)

At home, Merkel's government was having trouble putting out a clear line on the E. coli crisis and its cause, with conflicting accounts coming from different officials. The confusion was perhaps not too surprising given that 32 different state and federal agencies get involved when there are public-health scares.

Germany's health minister, Daniel Bahr, now acknowledges that communications could have been better.

In an editorial, the weekly European Voice advised Berlin to view the E. coli debacle in a broader political context and respond accordingly.

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