Bloomberg News

Hamburg Bistros Suffer Salad-Shunning After E. Coli Outbreak

June 09, 2011

June 10 (Bloomberg) -- Volkan Demiryürek’s Knusper Bistro in Hamburg, the hardest-hit area in the world’s deadliest outbreak of E. coli, has lost 50 percent of its trade since diners started shunning vegetables linked to the bacteria.

“We’re losing 250 euros ($363) a day and we’re really scared of the situation,” said Demiryürek, who opened for business in the German port city 18 months ago. Customers have stopped ordering salad at the lunch diner located near the city’s Binnenalster lake after the bug started infecting Hamburg citizens on May 2, he said.

The E. coli strain, which the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says has killed 27 people and sickened at least 2,899, is hurting business in Germany’s wealthiest city. Visitors have begun to cancel or delay trips there as officials, who first blamed Spanish cucumbers and then local sprouts, struggle to pinpoint the source.

“If this goes on for days or weeks, we’ll soon have a problem with Hamburg’s image,” said Sascha Albertsen, a spokesman for Hamburg Tourismus GmbH, which promotes the city as a tourism destination, in an interview.

The fallout has sparked a drop of 30 percent to 40 percent in sales of fresh vegetables in Hamburg’s food shops, said Marianne Temming, head of the association of Hamburg food retailers. Officials still advise people not to eat raw tomatoes, sprouts, lettuce and cucumbers.

Off the Menu

“There is hysteria among consumers -- some people I have spoken to don’t even buy Chinese food in the restaurant anymore because they often use sprouts,” she said.

Hasan Ougun, who works in a fruit and vegetable shop in Gaensemarkt in central Hamburg, said sales have declined as much as 60 percent in the past two weeks.

The picture is similar at Hamburg’s Grossmarkt, a wholesale market for fruit, vegetables and flowers with annual revenue of 2 billion euros.

There sales have dropped as much as 19 percent, said Hans Joachim Conrad, chairman of Die Grossmarkt Hamburg Verwaltungs- Genossenschaft e.G., which represents 97 percent of the traders at the market. Merchants specializing in vegetables have seen a slump of 30 to 50 percent, he said.

While 17 cases of the disease were tied to a restaurant in Luebeck, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) from Hamburg, investigators identified sprouts from an organic farm in the nearby town of Bienenbuettel as a possible source.

Sprout Farm

While the tests on samples from the farm have proven negative, “the epidemiological chain between the sites of the outbreak and the Bienenbuettel site yesterday became stronger rather than weaker,” Lower Saxony’s agriculture minister Gert Lindemann said on June 8.

The strain of E. coli involved in the outbreak produces a toxin that attacks the kidneys and blood vessels. Most cases have occurred in adult women, and among people from northern Germany or who have recently traveled there, the ECDC said.

Hundreds of people have developed a potentially fatal kidney complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome after being infected with E. coli.

“While I’m not really scared, I have stopped eating any uncooked vegetables, just in case,” said Rulo Quintanilla, an engineer originally from Mexico now living in Hamburg.

The food scare is also hurting the German farming industry, which is experiencing its biggest crisis since the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl because of the E. coli outbreak, Gerd Sonnleitner, head of the German DBV farming association, said in a statement on June 6. German farmers are losing 5 million euros in sales every day as a result, the DBV estimated yesterday.

Russian Ban

Russia banned the importation of German and Spanish tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers on May 30 because of the E. coli outbreak. Qatar imposed a temporary ban on the importation of the same vegetables from Germany and Spain, the Qatar News Agency reported June 5, citing the Supreme Council of Health.

The European Union on June 8 expanded an aid package for vegetable growers faced with a demand slump caused by the E. coli outbreak to 210 million euros. Vegetable growers in the 27- nation bloc are losing as much as 400 million euros a week from a drop in demand related to the outbreak, Brussels-based farm lobby Copa-Cogeca said on June 7.

As much as 80 percent of vegetables are being destroyed in some areas because there is no market, it said.

The scare is tarnishing the image of Hamburg, which is situated on the River Elbe and is home to Germany’s largest port and Europe’s largest red-light district, the Reeperbahn. The city ranks as Europe’s 11th most popular tourist destination based on the number of hotel nights spent, ahead of capitals such as Stockholm and Brussels, according to Hamburg Tourismus.

In 2010, 9 million hotel nights were spent in Hamburg, compared with 73.1 million in London, 36.1 million in Paris and 20.8 million in Berlin, according to the agency’s website. The city has seen an increase in hotel nights spent of 88 percent between 2001 and 2010.

The epidemic is also a blow to the city’s status as this year’s European Green Capital, with politicians, local businesses, industries and people strive to find ways to make the city more environmentally friendly.

As German authorities search for the cause of the disease, entrepreneurs in Hamburg are continuing to lose money.

“We used to work like bees between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and now it’s enough with one person during lunch,” Demiryürek said.

--Editor: Angela Cullen, Heather Harris

To contact the reporter on this story: Niklas Magnusson in Hamburg at nmagnusson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Angela Cullen at acullen8@bloomberg.net


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