A court in Hamburg, Germany, has decided that a Spanish vegetable grower and distributor should be compensated for losses sustained after its cucumbers were wrongly named as the likely source of a 2011 outbreak of the rare and deadly E. coli O104:H4. Near the peak of the outbreak that eventually sickened 4,075 and caused 50 deaths in 16 countries, Hamburg health officials went public with their suspicions about the coop’s cucumbers possibly being the source. As a result, numerous Spanish cucumber growers took a hard hit — perhaps as much as $200 million a week — before the investigation determined that fenugreek sprouts were really to blame. Frunet, the cooperative based in Málaga, Spain, will have to wait until a second phase of the litigation to find out how much it can recover from the City of Hamburg, whose health officials made the mistake. The cooperative has asked for €2.3 million Euros, or about $2.54 million. The cooperative said its members are ecstatic over the prospect of getting reimbursed, but the cooperative’s sales director noted that restoring its name was also important. Hamburg could also appeal the ruling, which results from litigation that has been in the German courts for more than four years. “Pointing the finger at a company can destroy it completely in seconds, and this is something that could happen to any firm in the world,” said Richard Söpenberg, Frunet’s sales manager. “Fortunately, we’ve managed to rebuild our company from scratch, and we’re at last back to the level of production and sales that we were at before the cucumber crisis.” When Frunet cucumbers was wrongly named in May 2011, Hamburg was dealing with one of the most serious medical emergencies to face Northern Germany since World War II. Not only were the eventual 4,075 confirmed cases of the unusual E. coli strain pushing against the capacity of the region’s medical facilities, but 908 of those sickened progressed into the life-threatening kidney disease known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). That put needed kidney dialysis machines in short supply as HUS victims typically must rely on the artificial process to eliminate waste and unwanted water from blood. The World Health Organization earlier this year estimated the total loss to agriculture and industry from the outbreak was $1.3 billion throughout 22 European states, and emergency medical care cost another $236 million. Most of the negative economic impact fell on Northern Germany, but there were cases scattered throughout Switzerland, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. People who showed up ill in those countries typically had traveled recently to Germany or France. Northern Germany gets most of its cucumbers in the spring from Spanish greenhouses. When they were wrongly named as the source of the E. coli O104 outbreak, demand dried up and Russia closed its borders to all EU fresh produce. Two months later, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute concluded that sprouts were the true source of the outbreak and, on June 24, 2011, EU food safety agencies said that fenugreek sprouts widely distributed throughout Europe caused the outbreak. The U.S. Court of Claims last year rejected a similar request for reimbursement from tomato growers over the naming in 2008 of tomatoes as the likely source of a Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that sickened 1,442 people in 43 states. The real cause of the outbreak, however, turned out to be Mexican-grown jalapeño and serrano peppers. For growers, it meant that tomatoes that were going for $18 to $19 a box before being blamed for the outbreak were left to rot in the fields. They filed initial claims of $40 million in losses, but a federal judge ruled that food safety warnings like these are not a “regulatory taking” and that the government has no obligation to compensate anyone for sharing their best public health information at the time.
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