Nigel Jenney, Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) chief executive, said the German authorities’ initial response to what the World Health Organisation has identified a new ‘super toxic’ strain of Escherichia coli (E.coli) bacterium had been neither responsible nor competent.
Cucumbers not to blame
He said the German assertion that Spanish cucumbers had caused the outbreak was “sadly incorrect” - with the EU lifting its warning on Spanish cucumbers after new tests - but UK cucumber and salad sales had seen a decline in both sales values and volumes as a result.
“The position now is that Germany and the EC continue to review the cause, but don’t know what it is", said Jenney, “which is neither useful nor constructive. The unfortunate thing is that it’s plunged an industry into crisis through no fault of its own.”
From the UK point of view, Jenney stressed that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Health Protection Agency (HPA) continued to make “positive, constructive” statements to UK consumers that there was no trace of contamination in produce here or in distribution systems.
Jenney said consumers could have confidence in UK cucumbers, given that: (1) the E.coli link to cucumbers has been discredited; (2) at this time of year most cucumbers on UK sale are either homegrown or from Holland (i.e. not from Northern Germany, which is the geographical centre of the outbreak).
Help industry recover
Thirdly, Jenney said, of the seven documented UK cases that had occurred, all parties had been infected in Germany.
He added: “My biggest concern is that the authorities quickly identify the source, or if they can’t, admit that they don’t know. It’s vital that they then expend considerable time and effort to rebuild consumer confidence and help the industry to recover.”
Pas Milazzo, commercial director of UK Salads told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “We are sure that our product is 100% safe, but something needs to be done as the problems in Germany are affecting our business. We had one customer tell us they were 40% down on sales of cucumbers. Prices are also being hit.”
Milazzo said that his company, which has a BRC A-grade and supplies supermarkets and catering customers, would “know to the second” what was happening in its supply chain, and even who packed a particular cucumber.
Emphasising the UK fresh produce industry’s stringent safety standards, Jenney said the HPA “consistently advise that the risk of food poisoning from consuming fresh produce is extremely rare”.
Such outbreaks can occur due to cross-contamination from water used to process or handle salads or vegetables, while Jenney said it can also occur when a consumer, say, cuts raw chicken and then uses the same utensil to chop fresh produce.