The EHEC crisis will have caused billions of euro in damage to farmers throughout Europe and to the EU itself, but what is there to learn from this hysteria?
Facts first. So far, 23 people have died in the whole of Europe – as many as die in traffic each five hours – and just 1% of those infected. While matters of public health are always important, this one is no cause for such a planet-wide hysteria. A hysteria which the German governments helped to spread by pointing not once, not twice, but at least three times to “the source of the infection”… only to be disproved a day later. So far, the real cause has not been found. But their communication blamed cucumbers, peppers, soya, … up to a potato restaurant in Lübeck, leaving their image damaged internationally.
The consequences of these decisions to communicate suppositions instead of waiting for proof has been deadly for vegetable producers around Europe. Not only because for several days, nobody in Europe dared to eat cucumbers or peppers (or in a later instance: soya), but especially since the miscommunication had Russia – the main importer of European vegetables – impose an immediate and total ban on every vegetable from the EU. Once again, Europe witnessed the destruction of mountains of vegetables, only this time, they were perfectly edible – just not saleable.
Spanish farmers estimate their loss at 200 million euro per week, not including the damage on their image. Dutch and Belgian farmers, probably along with most of European countries, will join the Spanish in their damage claims against the Germans.
Without any positive leads to the source of the contamination – although several scientists point out that EHEC bacteria usually lives in cattle, not on plants – it is difficult to say what retailers can do to limit damage in such cases. One thing that retailers should never do, is search cheaper ways to track the origin of vegetables. Metro Group for instance has announced the introduction of the GS1 Databar just last week, enabling it to follow the complete road from origin to store of vegetables and fruit, which are normally difficult to trace. If retailers have to remember one thing from this crisis, it is that they should look again at the balance between the costs of tracing systems… and the costs of crises like these.