E.coli crisis: Hamburg — agony of the big city
7 June 2011
Hamburg, at the epicentre of the food crisis brought on by the EHEC pathogen, has run up the epidemic flag: the blood supply is running out, and vegetables are rotting unsold. ‘We’re still alive,’ hisses the vendor in her market booth. A report.
Gradually, salad is vanishing from Hamburg. Where green lettuce leaves once decorated the edge of a plate, restaurants are laying out a slice of melon. The appetising burst of colour on a sandwich comes from parsley sprigs. On Käsesemmel, buns with cheese baked on top, red bell peppers are substituting for slices of tomato. ‘We can’t take on any more lettuce,’ says the market vendor. Tomatoes, likewise, are being turned away. Outside the big city, the farmers are heading back out to their fields with pallet-loads of iceberg lettuce and rocket and dumping them, shredded, as green manure. The vegetables are coming back, unsold, from the wholesale markets.
The battle of the vegetables has been raging in Hamburg ever since the EHEC flag went up over the metropolis. The harvest from German farms is being wheeled out against produce from abroad, and at the farmers market stalls hard-to-sell lettuce varieties are defiantly declared ‘Produce of the Day'. Take Lohbrügge this Saturday, for example. The lively hubbub around the market came with dialogue out of a disaster movie. ‘We’re still kicking,’ hisses a vendor selling local greens out of her booth.
Everything was picked by their own people: no one got sick, and no one died. That really ought to be proof enough. Nevertheless, the cucumbers lie heavy as uranium fuel rods in their shipping crates. Even at knock-down prices, customers walk straight past. Cucumbers are being dumped for forty cents each, or three for a euro. At the stand across the way an elderly lady says that people are ‘rather rattled'. If she gets sick because she shopped here, she goes even further, then the seller had better beware. Warning shot fired, she permits herself to pick up a jar of herring salad.
All is chaos. The word 'salad' sounds like a gunshot. From one day to the next, snacking on healthy food has become an unhealthy gamble. Around the world, German vegetables have sparked fear, causing the USA to bring in import controls and the Russians to ban imports outright. German farmers, though, see buying German vegetables as the only protection against EHEC.
On the Internet, farmers-market operators are keen to keep alive an already obsolete story. The homepage of the Hamburger Wochenmärkte (Hamburg’s farmers markets) still carries the message: "We would like to tell you why, despite everything, you can still buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the market – and even why you should. The EHEC pathogen was found in cucumbers from Spain."
Indeed, it must come from somewhere. It’s the Fukushima-feeling, of not being able to see or hear, or smell or taste, the danger from an enteral pathogen that has made at least 2,500 people in Germany ill. The bug is out there, and we are afraid. The former head of the Stasi Records Authority, Joachim Gauck, has even accused Germans of "a downright addiction to fear”.
More or less officially Hamburg is a disaster area
Would it really be so astonishing, though, to be experiencing diffuse anxiety? The day before yesterday dioxin was found in animal feed, yesterday a nuclear power plant exploded, and today a bacterium unknown to scientists in this present form is spreading. Foodstuffs are shipped around whole continents, seemingly without leaving any trace of their origins. And the people, potential victims all, can do nothing more than to try to avoid invisible pitfalls. So they pluck the lettuce from rolls, order pizza without tomatoes, and buy zucchini instead of cucumbers at the markets.
For a city in fear, Hamburg has had a wonderful weekend. Tens of thousands of people in summer clothes thronged the streets, crowded the sidewalk cafes, and ate in restaurants. No one was wearing masks over their mouths or hiding at home from the killer bacteria.
The public comes through in a more subtle way, for example in all the little blue bottles of disinfectant that have replaced the soap in almost every public toilet. Or in the waiting times outside the blood donor clinics. The blood supply is running short, and one might even need it oneself soon enough: kidney failure is part of the terror spread by the pathogen. The Mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz, has called for more blood donations.
Nowhere in Germany are there more victims of EHEC than in Hamburg’s hospitals. Beds are running out too, Health Minister Daniel Bahr was forced to admit. On Sunday the young minister visited the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf, in order, supposedly, ‘to show concern for the patients.’ When soldiers die in Afghanistan, the Defence Minister visits. If an ICE derails, the Transport Minister arrives. If an epidemic breaks out, the Health Minister shows up. Bahr's visit more or less officially makes Hamburg a disaster area.
For the pearl on the Alster, its reputation is on the line. The pathogen on the loose has a criminal image problem around the city. Last week the police chief suggested staking out detectives. The manhunt is on for an invisible little foe.
Translated from the German by Anton Baer