The Call

Playing the food safety card

Playing the food safety card

By Scott Rosenstein

Saving lives is an easy policy to defend. And advocating saving lives is an easy way to roll out policies that might otherwise be considered opportunistic. The ongoing E. coli outbreak in northern Germany is no exception. To be sure, the situation is grave. To date, 24 people have died and more than 2,400 have gotten sick. The outbreak has also destroyed livelihoods: Spanish cucumber farmers, wrongly identified as the source of the outbreak, have estimated losses of $280 million per week, while vegetable sales throughout Europe have plunged. The source of the outbreak has yet to be identified, spawning further anxiety and economic dislocation. But official responses to the crisis may be more self-serving than well-guided.

On 2 June, Russia announced that it was banning imports of fresh vegetables from the entire EU region. The Russian ambassador to the EU defended the move, saying: "I can certainly understand the grievances of EU farmers and I sympathize, but you can certainly understand no material loss is comparable to the loss of human life." His plea is hard to bicker with, but from an epidemiological standpoint the ban is provocative. All the E. coli cases recorded in the past month can be traced to northern Germany, suggesting that the contaminated food (regardless of where it originated) has been confined to that region.  

So why is Russia taking such an aggressive stance? While health concerns may be part of the story, the primary drivers are likely economic and/or political . The EU exported $853 million worth of vegetables to Russia last year, with very few Russian vegetables making their way into the EU. Some observers have alleged that this imbalance motivated Moscow’s move. Russia’s chief sanitary officer, Gennadiy Onishchenko, dismissed that accusation but, in a bid to undercut international criticism of his country’s health sector, said on June 2 that the outbreak proved that "European health legislation, as some press Russia to adopt, does not work."

Russia’s ban may or may not work itself. The country’s vegetable trade imbalance with the EU is partly attributable to the generous agricultural subsidies that EU farmers enjoy and that stifle competition from abroad. The ban will do little to convince EU policymakers to rethink those subsidies, and in fact, may reinforce support for them. The EU just announced a $210 million aid package for farmers affected by the E. coli outbreak, and more money may get passed around if farmers continue to suffer. Moreover, if the outbreak is past its peak, as some German officials are cautiously suggesting, and if Russia’s ban threatens to distract from the upcoming Russia-EU summit, starts to jeopardize Russia’s hopes of joining the WTO, or bumps up the price of vegetables at home, Moscow will likely backtrack.

Nevertheless, the world’s convoluted food supply chain will continue to create complicated, costly, and sometimes deadly food safety scandals. And while some responses will be grounded in caution and scientific rigor, officials will also continue to take the opportunity to curry favor with domestic constituencies. In the coming weeks, particularly if the outbreak continues spreading, both tactics will likely be on display. Keep an eye on:

  • Trade tension. Countries like Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE have imposed selective bans on European vegetables. These won’t seriously affect the EU vegetable market, but copycat bans could follow if the outbreak continues; if governments want to signal, justifiably or not, that they’re being proactive; or if officials are tempted to promote local producers.
  • U.S. food safety regulation. The United States is debating whether to fund recently passed food safety legislation. The E. coli outbreak could galvanize support for such funding, although Republicans would likely only back it if the outbreak ripples throughout the United States-a low-probability scenario.
  • Organic farming regulation. If it turns out that an organic farm was responsible for the outbreak, as has been suggested, calls for further regulation of organic farms in the EU and a decrease in consumer demand for organic foods could follow.

Scott Rosenstein is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s global health practice.