Sunday, 5 June 2011

Cucumbers in a pickle

I must be getting old, because the last couple of years have seen me mumbling, with increasing frequency, the words: ‘common’ and ‘sense’ in that order – usually in connection with questions about where it is hiding and accompanied by dramatic rolling of the eyes. Hurrumph.

In case you've missed it, there’s a new and very nasty strain of E coli on the loose in Europe – a development that was met with a crassly hurried announcement that organic Spanish cucumbers were the culprit.

Now while organic cucumbers are not up in arms, Spanish farmers are – and, stiill struggling with the economic woes caused by a recession caused by gambling bankers - they're now rather peeved with Germany, which is at the heart of the outbreak and made that panicked claim. Thus they're also threatening to sue Germany for damages.

Of course such a story never does much for good old common sense, but it gives the media a nice scare story to get excited about. Anyone else remember ebola?

Let’s be clear: it’s a nasty, nasty bug or virus or whatever – I don’t know the technical stuff. I don’t know much about maths either, but German has a population of ticking on for 82 million.

In 2009, the UN calculated the population of Europe as as a whole at 852.4m. In 2008, the combined population of the EU countries was around 499m.

According to a report from the BBC yesterday, there are 11 UK cases. By the end of last week, there had been at least 18 deaths and over 1,800 infections in Germany, Sweden and other countries.

In other words, however nasty it is, this is not an epidemic. Or a pandemic. Or any other kind of demic.

Yet even the Guardian, of which I foolishly expect better, came up with the question: ‘Is it safe to eat salad?’. And one Stephen Vaughan pandered to fears by suggesting (presumably in total seriousness) that: “the most sensible way to wash vegetables at home is to use Milton Sterilising Fluid.”

Processed food sounds ever more convenient when you consider his next comments: “You need to use a double sink method – one bowl with Milton diluted in water (as per the instructions), then put your fruit and vegetables in there for 20 minutes. Fill the other sink with tap water to wash off the chlorine. It leaves no taste and kills the bacteria.”

Or presumably, since the Guardian kindly provided a link, you could go on a food hygiene course that Mr Vaughan runs.

Now don’t get me wrong: food hygiene is extremely important. But since we don’t even know where or how this E coli outbreak began, it seems at least a tad hysterical telling the public to take greater precautions than basic, sensible ones.

But the same article does have some interesting things in it. It notes that in 2007, “an outbreak of salmonella in the UK was traced to imported basil, while an E coli outbreak in the US in 2006 was caused by pre-packed spinach. And in 2008, 145 people in the US were made ill by eating tomatoes infected with a rare strain of salmonella.”

A link, perhaps, in that the products seem to have been mass produced? These outbreaks were clearly not the result of produce grown in your own garden.

And it continues: “In her book Not on the Label, Guardian journalist Felicity Lawrence says that between 1992 and 2000, when bagged salads took off, nearly 6% of food-poisoning outbreaks were associated with prepared vegetables and salads. In 1996 a study of retail samples of bagged salad found 13% contained E coli.”

Not that is a bit of a surprise. How convenient does that bag of prepared carrot batons seem now? I’m not personally immune to the allure of bagged salad leaves – particularly for lamb’s lettuce. But once we get the garden sorted out in the coming months, it’s one of a number of things I’m going to try growing in a pot.

Gad Frankel, who is a professor of molecular pathogenesis at Imperial College London, is far more sensible in tone than Mr Vaughan. He’s quoted as saying: “I don’t think salads are particularly dangerous. The rate of infection is very low, so when it happens it really makes the news because it’s so rare.”

And the article adds that he suggests that “any increase in incidents … may be due to the fact we now eat more salad as we seek to make our diets healthier.”

So I’m not the only one who thinks the response is a bit OTT. Phew!

But as mentioned at the start of this piece, the hysteria has already had a negative impact on Spanish farmers specifically and European farmers as a whole – not least as Russia closes its doors to all vegetable produce from the EU (although you can’t help but feeling that Putin and Co will enjoy doing that anyway as a bit of snook cocking in a westerly direction).

In the UK, there seem to be vague reports from supermarkets that sales of fresh salad ingredients have slipped a little.

Not that we should be surprised. It’s the same kind of panic that has seen the rise of antibacterial cleaners for the home, from ones to use on work surfaces to ones to wash your hands with.

And when sales of those had peaked, someone had the neat idea of selling dispensers for antibacterial soap that you didn’t have to touch, thus obviating the risk of picking up more nasties.

Even though we know that the over-use of antibiotics can reduce their efficacy, we lap up products that could contribute to exactly that. Common sense has been replaced by fear. Producers can make money out of that fear.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one for conspiracy theories – Occam and his razor every time for me – but I cannot help but imagine that producers of processed foods (those with ‘added value’) will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of terrified consumers turning away from fresh fruit and veg and toward processed foods that could be seen to offer more safety.

If there’s a military-industrial complex, as Eisenhower asserted, then how about an agri-industrial complex? The former thrives on war and insecurity and fear. And the second …? Presumably, sales of sterilising fluid will increase, alongside those 'added value' foods.

And I do understand that governments have to act to reassure and/or warn the public. Or at least be seen to do so.

Unfortunately, rapid declarations of the origin of health problems can cause their own problems. In 1989, Stilton cheese was at the centre of a health scare. Supermarkets and customers stopped buying. Government helped persuade producers they would have to pasturise the milk in future if they were to continue producing.

The cheesemakers coughed up for the new machinery. And when Stilton won Protected Designated Origin (PDO) status in 1996, it was legally enshrined as a cheese made from pasturised milk.

But the link with the health scare was never proved. But pasturisation changes the flavour of a cheese. Fortunately, Joe Schneider started making Stichelton with raw milk – and those in the know say it's much more like the 'original' Stilton.

So there are consequences to rapid claims of blame when health scares come around – as European farmers are finding now.

So in other words, where possible, avoid snap conclusions and statements. Let scientists do their work and, when reassuring the public, let them know that the experts are on the case, that it's not an epidemic and that they should continue to take normal hygiene measures with their food.

And then hope you've got a grown-up enough media to act sensibly too.

There is something else too. I have a sense of nostalgia for a past that I personally have never experienced, but one where you could pick a carrot from the ground, rub it with your hands and eat it, there and then. For a world where nobody would stop you scrumping apples because you hadn't washed the fruit after picking it off the tree.

Amid the relative dearth of food memories from my childhood, one stands out: drinking milk that had just come straight from the milking shed. Warm and thick with cream; almost yellow in colour.

I remember it because it was special – because it was unlike any other milk I had tasted before or have tasted since.

How many people would be terrified now of doing that themselves or of letting their children do it?

Chicken and egg: which came first? Such fears or an attitude that sees food only as fuel? I suspect they nurture each other.

But enough of all this: cucumber sandwiches – with or without the crusts?


  1. as me mam would say ' wot dont Kill yer makes yer stronger'
    But seriously 18 deaths!... just remind me how many die from water bourne disease in developing countries every day?

  2. Completely agree, Shirley. Absolutely. Of course it's a nightmare - and possibly a tragedy - for anyone who gets it and for their loved ones who also have to deal with it. But so are many things that do not hit the front pages. The media hysterical is out of all proportion.

    Obviously such things make 'good' stories for a lot of the media, but then that creates a climate of fear and hysteria. As I said: "common sense".

    God, I feel old! ;-)