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Moment that mattered: Germany confirms E coli outbreak came from a German farm

“When I heard Germany had admitted that the E coli came from a German farm, after originally saying it came from Spain, I was not excited: the damage had already been done. They should never have had to issue this clarification because they should never have pointed the finger at Spain – and particularly at Almería, the region where I live. Agriculture in Almería is subject to the tightest safety controls in all of Europe.

An apology could never be enough. Accusations made by Germany destroyed the work of thousands of farmers. You cannot lay blame and then ask for forgiveness. You cannot accuse without proof, you cannot play with the livelihood of farmers throughout Spain, whose only skill is to work the land and to work it well.

The first greenhouses were built in Almería in 1968 and the E coli crisis has been the worst ever suffered by local farmers. They – and the rest of the citizens of Almería – knew at the time that it was impossible that the cucumbers were responsible for the E coli outbreak. In Almería we work with clean, green, environmentally friendly methods: this is the ‘Almería model’.

All the local crops were destroyed. The false accusations of Hamburg’s Minister of Health, Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks, finished everything. As soon as she implicated Spain, the consumption of vegetables hit rock bottom. Farmers had to rip up their plants because no one wanted them: the damage has been incalculable. It’s hard, too, to tell how much damage has been done to the image of Spanish agriculture. The truth is that once the seed of doubt has been planted, it always remains. Public opinion is sometimes irrational and fear is hard to stop.

Sadly I don’t think it’s possible to stop such accusations flying around in the future. Political leaders talk a lot and think very little: the exact opposite of scientists and technicians. And as long as politicians are so obsessed by the media, they will always give irrational, ill-considered speeches.

The cause of the crisis is simple: ignorance. The world of agriculture is largely unknown to the public. Most people believe that the countryside is old-fashioned and uninteresting, and think the tomato or cucumber is a product that is born on the supermarket shelf. There are millions of these consumers who only care when there’s a health alert. Then comes fear, which turns into panic, and surges through the globalised world in which we live. If those millions of consumers knew the “Almería model” of production they would have no fear –even if people like Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks were spinning tales.

In order to avoid E coli outbreaks in the future, consumers need to be aware of one thing: food safety must be paid for. The consumer must know that if you pay more for a cucumber from Almería than a cucumber from Egypt, that cost is justified: there is more control and food security in Almería than in Egypt. Healthy food costs money and if we pay for it we will have no more E coli outbreaks.

It is so important for the public to know about what they eat, where it comes from, how food is produced and who produces it. If people knew this, Almería would prosper because it has the safest farms in Europe. ”

José Antonio Arcos is the Economy and Business Editor of La Voz de Almería

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