Responsibilities in the fight against EHEC, a deadly strain of E. coli that has been discovered on vegetables in some European countries, are shared between 16 German states and their health and agricultural ministries. At federal level, both ministries are supported by the Robert Koch Institute, which is responsible for disease control and prevention, and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.
Exchange of information between these institutions can be slow. There is no central authority gathering and publishing information on the outbreak and its possible causes.
“The crisis management carried out by the states has been very effective,” says Erich Schröder, who teaches medical sociology at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “The civil servants and scientists in the affected states are close to the problem and thus best equipped to deal with it. Whether we need a central processing of information is another question. Maybe we should take a look and see how other countries do it.”
About two weeks into the outbreak, Robert Koch Institute researchers established what EHEC patients in Hamburg had eaten – cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce. A week later, Hamburg’s health authorities named cucumbers from Spain as the source of the problem.
Five days later, this warning turned out to be wrong. And while federal health minister Daniel Bahr still maintained that cucumbers were the most-likely culprits, his colleague from the state of Lower Saxony already told the public that bean sprouts from an organic farm in Germany had carried the germs – both claims have yet to be proven.