So the mystery of Germany’s sproutbreak is finally solved. Let the finger-pointing begin.
Nearly six weeks into the European epidemic of toxic E. coli O104:H4, German authorities Friday confirmed what had been suspected for days – that it was locally grown sprouts from an organic farm in Lower Saxony that sickened more than 3,000 people.
But that announcement only intensified public criticism targeting public health officials at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and other German agencies responsible for food safety.
First detected in the first few days of May, the outbreak has raged unabated for nearly six weeks, with the toll mounting daily – 3,086 sick, 789 with hemolytic uremic syndrome, 31 dead. Critics pointed out that hundreds, even thousands of illnesses might have been prevented had the source been identified sooner and pulled from regional markets and restaurants.
To make matters worse, public attention was drawn for more than a week to other vegetables, especially cucumbers from Spain, which were wrongly fingered as a possible source.
The German establishment newspaper Der Spiegel compiled criticisms from all points in the the political spectrum.
The conservative Die Welt: “Why did authorities look at Spanish cucumbers so long and so intensely in their search for the E. coli source when a closer look revealed them to be innocent? Why did the E. coli hunters not focus much sooner on the sprouts from Lower Saxony?”
That paper pointed out that another German agency, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, had warned consumers about “bacterial contamination of sprouts and kitchen-ready salad mixtures.” That warning was updated in early May, even as the outbreak was beginning. “Why didn’t the alarm bells go off at the agency?” the newspaper asked.
The leftist Frankfurter Rundschau sees a paralyzing conflict between federal and regional authorities. The RKI “isn’t allowed to question patients (because) that’s the domain of regional authorities,” the paper said.
That critique reinforced the observations of U.S. epidemiologists, who have wondered from the outset why German officials were so slow to interview victims about what they had eaten in previous days and weeks.
“You don’t have to interview everybody, just a statistical sample,” said Dr. Kirk Smith, foodborne illness director at the Minnesota Department of Health. But tracing outbreaks to their source depends on quick and thorough interviews, using people trained to conduct such interviews, he said.
He and others pointed out that the concentration of illnesses in northern Germany should have made the investigation much easier – and quicker. With hundreds of illnesses in a relatively small area, the source is likely to be local — which should have cast serious doubt on the Spanish cucumber theory.
In another critique compiled by Der Spiegel, the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel commented; “Organic is good, chemicals (are) bad. We get this message drummed into us every day. It is a macabre irony that evil chemistry … is now saving people whose lives have been endangered by organic food.”
Other critics focused on the nature of German political authority, which places substantial responsibility with regional health officials. They suggest that a stronger federal authority might have been able to detect and respond more quickly to the epidemic.
That analysis is similar to the continuing debate over public health in the U.S., where some state health departments are consistently more successful than others at dealing with foodborne illness.