Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Huge impact of food scares can take years to overcome -- or damn a product instantly

Are you still eating your cucumber? Are you even eating salads following the E.coli deaths emanating from northern Germany?

Yet another food scare has stalked Europe.

At the time of writing, 31 people have lost their lives in the German E.coli crisis. Over 600 have suffered kidney failure. A further 2,000 have been diagnosed as having been struck down by this new bug.

All were innocent victims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, tragically so for the dead and permanently maimed.

To a lesser extent, Spain's cucumber growers, and the lettuce and bean sprout growers of Germany, are also victims.

The collateral damage suffered by this industry has been devastating, but at least they have the prospect of compensation from the EU exchequer.

Food poisoning is part of life. It causes an estimated 500 deaths a year in Britain and as many as 9,000 a year in the US. Most food poisoning cases stay under the radar and do not make international headlines. Even the German episode was rumbling along for most of May before the national authorities were alerted.

Food poisoning usually hits the very old and very young and those with a poor immune system. The German victims were primarily fit young females. This added to the mystery and the panic. The bug, once eventually identified, was a rare E.coli strain that was reckoned to have mutated with deadly consequences.

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Under pressure to find the source of the outbreak, the scientists placed preliminary blame on cucumbers from Spain. Salads and tomatoes were also implicated and a warning went out to this effect.

The cucumber finding was later withdrawn, and then implicated again, but the damage had been done. Next the blame shifted to bean sprouts from a particular grower in northern Germany. This source too has been discounted and it looks now as if the outbreak origin may never be found.

One commentator likened the search to watching camera footage today from a busy intersection in an attempt to find the cause of an accident which took place three weeks ago.

The German authorities have drawn criticism for the handling of the affair. EU Health Commissioner John Dalli stressed that their evidence should have been scientifically sound and foolproof before making public pronouncements.

In the powder keg atmosphere of food-related deaths, even a whiff of a suspicion can damn a product instantly across the entire globe. A friend from Dublin travelled to Jordan during the BSE hullabaloo in Britain and Ireland. The taxi driver from the airport asked from whence he had travelled. When my friend mentioned Ireland the taxi man instantly replied: "Mad Cow Disease!". Fifteen years later Middle Eastern countries are at last reopening their markets to Irish beef.

At a human level, I can see the German dilemma. Deaths were mounting and time was not on their side, but that did not justify such fumbling.

Ironically, of all the people on Earth, Germans are probably the most reactive to food scares, to the point of being neurotic on the issue. When Ireland had its traumas with the BSE in cattle and the dioxin in pork, the German markets took the biggest hits. Our significant beef exports to Germany collapsed overnight and are only recovering now.

Interestingly, the mindset of their neighbours in Holland was very different. The Dutch accepted the science and the BSE controls on Irish beef and continued to import product right throughout the scare.

As a major exporter of food Ireland is vulnerable to food scares, be they real or imagined. Consumers do not have to buy our product. If there is the slightest cloud over an Irish product, the supermarket shelves are packed with alternatives.

The media love a juicy food or health scare. There seems to be no problem in finding a supportive professor or academic to fan the latest hysteria. Think of Bird Flu and Swine Flu. It now appears that almost 50pc of Britons caught Swine Flu during the pandemic scare without realising it. It too was flagged as a deadly threat.

Traceability is now a given for the produce leaving Irish farms and rightly so. Proper traceability should ensure that a potential scare is confined and the damage is limited. The other side of full traceability is that the farmer producing the food is now more readily identified and thus is liable to claims and prosecution should things go wrong.

This is why farmers pay insurance. FBD, and other insurers include a product liability cover, to a ceiling of €2.6m, as part of their public liability cover.

This will cover negligence and accidental negligence. But if the farmer has followed best practice and has good records this can prove that responsibility for a claim does not lie with him/her.

I wish you all safe farming and safe eating.

Peter Murphy

I learned of Peter Murphy's sudden passing with shock and sadness. If you wanted to share in a session of fellowship, good humour and enjoyable anecdotes and stories from Irish agriculture, I can think of no better company than Peter Murphy.

His prodigious memory, his ability to mimic (particularly of the late Joe Rea), his vast range of contacts from Marcra, IFA, Agricultural Shows, Sheep Shearing and his quiz mastering all combined to provide a well of material from which Peter entertained.

I am reminded of one of his Cross Country Quiz questions: "What is the Ayatollah Khomeini?" It evoked the answer: "Is it a Ceili dance?"

Right up to the end, Peter continued to set his crosswords. Unless you were conversant with the latest developments in sports, politics, science, arts or whatever, you had no business attempting to answer Peter's clues.

In addition to his many talents, Peter was also a top footballer and played for his native Co Carlow.

May the many rich memories bring comfort to his wife Bridie and family in the days ahead.

Indo Farming