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French cucumbers feel sting of E.coli scare

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-06-09

Spanish cucumbers have been cleared of charges they caused the recent deadly outbreak of E.coli. But at Europe's largest wholesale food market, just south of Paris, the sale of cucumbers has ground to a halt.

Boxes of French cucumbers are neatly stacked at the front of a vegetable wholesaler’s stall at the Rungis market, but the busy vendors skirt by it without wasting a second to inspect the product or make a bid on it. “It’s worse today,” yells the stall’s owner from behind a carton of radishes, “the media talked about it again this morning.”

Twenty-seven people have died, and more than 2,700 have fallen ill from an E.coli outbreak that began one week ago in the Hamburg region of Germany. The illnesses were first blamed on Spanish cucumbers, but German officials later backpedalled on the claim. On Wednesday, however, Health Minister Daniel Bahr told reporters Berlin would maintain its warning against eating raw cucumbers, as well as tomatoes, lettuce and sprouts, until it located the source of the contamination.

Rungis, the largest wholesale food market in Europe, located just south of Paris, has not stopped running at its usually frantic pace, and Thursday mornings mark the beginning of its peak activity each week. Cucumber sales, on the other hand, have ground to a halt.

The sprawling warehouse-like buildings that make up the market attract a diverse crowd, from grocery store owners to restaurant managers, and armies of middlemen whose work is to get food from farms to people’s dinner table.

EU ministers have scrambled to ease the fears of farmers and consumers, announcing that the "worst" of a killer bacteria outbreak was over and offering a 210-million-euro ($307 million) compensation package for vegetable producers whose sales have collapsed in the wake of the scare.

Officials in Brussels have not spoken about the vendors who also make a living from vegetable sales. Jean-Marc Bonifacci, a wholesaler at Rungis, agrees that farmers are the most affected. “We can fall back on the sale of another product,” Bonifacci admits, while expressing some displeasure about being ignored.

He says that last week he had dropped the price of a dozen cucumbers from 3 euros to 1 euro, but was still unable to sell any of them. The price of tomatoes and salads has also taken a hit, Bonifacci said. On Thursday morning he was selling a kilogram of tomatoes for 30 to 50 cents. Before the E.coli outbreak he says he could fetch 1 euro for the same amount.

Other vendors tell the same story. Tomato and sometimes lettuce sales have dropped, but other vegetables have sold at the normal price. Alain, a hefty man who resells vegetables at open-air markets around Paris, says his customers are still buying his products, save cucumbers, but have taken special interest in buying only French-made produce.

Fruit vendors at Rungis, who share the same buildings as the vegetable wholesalers, say they have not been affected by the E.coli crisis, and show displeasure when asked if they are somehow concerned by the situation.

Almost everyone at the market agrees that the outbreak has been overplayed on French television and radio, and that the media are to blame for striking unnecessary fear into the hearts of consumers. “All this is due to the psychosis of journalists,” grunts a manager at Roux Vegetables.

Every incidence of contamination has been linked to the Hamburg area. To date, France has registered 10 alleged cases of E.coli infection and no deaths. Those figures seem negligible to vegetable vendors at Rungis, but the numbers probably offer little comfort to French cucumber farmers.

A delegation of cucumber farmers was turned away from the Elysee presidential palace on Wednesday, but was later received by Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire. The minister reassured the farmers he would fight for their compensation in Brussels and took a bite out of a cucumber in front of reporters.

"We're not asking for the impossible," said the delegation's leader Jacques Rouchaussé, "Only to reassure consumers about the quality of cucumbers produced in France.


Date created : 2011-06-09


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