Timing, truth, how not to break news, and the e.coli cucumber conflict

Spanish cucumber

Spanish cucumber pronounced guilty

The other night, I posted a short question, linking to a news story I had just read, on a reputable, if sometimes sensational, UK source. I was careful to avoid making any comment, because I couldn’t find the story anywhere else at the time to verify it. By the next day, I could relax; reports were everywhere on the media.

Prison security

A couple of days earlier, the English-language outlet of a Bulgarian news agency published the following (at 13:17, on 28th. May):

“Sofia Central Prison’s canteen has been robbed, [our agency] reporter informs.
“The robbery took place last night and it is not the first one for the last few months. For that reason the prison administration will install a security system.”

At 14:24 on the same day, they published a follow-up:

“Nothing has disappeared form (sic) the canteen of the Sofia Central Prison and there is not a case of robbery, the press office of the Ministry of Justice announced for (sic) [our agency].
“A couple of days ago a window in the canteen has been broken but nothing has disappeared.”

Apart from being amused at the report of a prison being broken into, and the idea of  therefore having to ‘install a security system’, who and what should I, Joe Blog, believe?

Chernobyl news delayed, Welsh fall-out

The example cited above is trivial. But, remember the case of Chernobyl, when the Soviet authorities took 2 days to inform the outside world that the catastrophe had occurred? Bulgaria apparently toed the line as well, and the traditional 1st. May public celebrations were held, even though that marked the first of 9 days when Bulgaria was most heavily affected by the radiation.[1]

Worse, “In Bulgaria, on April 29 1986, a news brief in communist mouthpiece Работническо дело (Rabotnichesko Delo, “Worker’s Deed”) noted that there had been a fire at Chernobyl. On May 7, to the consternation of many, Bulgarian National Television announced, briefly, that the radiation situation in the country had returned to normal. The reason for the consternation was that no one outside the ruling circle had been told that it had been anything other than normal.”[1]

Incidentally, even in far-away North Wales (2,300 km away), the effects were felt, and have left a long legacy – in 2010, there were still restrictions on the sale of livestock in the area.[2]

And, 25 years on, there is total disagreement over the health and economic effects of the disaster.

What’s my point?

The first case, it seems to me, was a simple example of initial misinformation, of not checking an alleged incident, and premature publication of uncorroborated ‘facts’. The official press centre rebuttal does not necessarily close the case, either. But the story has simply vanished.

The official handling of the Chernobyl disaster was, to many around the world, utterly reprehensible, putting so many lives in unnecessary danger; an official arrogance (mild word), cynicism and self-preserving attitude at the expense of ‘the plebs’.

Thankfully, it would be much more difficult to cover up such an incident, today – see, unfortunately, Fukushima and the amount of information publicly released, and how quickly.

The case of the Spanish cucumber

The current outbreak of E.coli, centred in Germany, is already the most serious since 1996. The progress of initial tests to identify the cause and source of the outbreak, which I’m sure were being carried out methodically, scientifically and ethically, was obliterated by the statements of the Hamburg “city Health Minister Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks on Thursday [26th. May]. Three out of four cucumbers carrying the dangerous strain of the bacteria were from an organic shipment from Spain being sold in Hamburg supermarkets.”[3]

Did she mean they had tested 4 cucumbers, and found that 3 were infected? Or did she mean that 3/4 of a larger number had been identified as contaminated? No matter!

Spain was immediately in uproar, politically and economically. The damage was done!

Five days later, the German health authorities reversed their statements on the ‘Spanish source’. Too late!

The Spanish fresh food industry reckons it will have to lay off hundreds, if not thousands, of casual workers; they calculate their lost production at ¢200 mn per week, with a knock-on into other areas of their economy, e.g., transport.

German producers are also up in arms, as the further advice was given, not to eat fresh produce grown in northern Germany.

Russia has banned the entry of fresh vegetables from anywhere in the EU; so the effect is a massive (as yet incalculable) economic blow to Union members.

The UK reports a 30% drop in price of cucumbers on the national market.

In Bulgaria (as elsewhere) it’s high season for local cucumbers, tomatoes, and green salads. Edward Stoychev, Chairman of the State Commission on Commodity Exchanges and Wholesale Markets stated on 2nd. June that local consumption was down, and producers were having to store their produce, and that they, too, would suffer some losses.[4] The Bulgarian Agriculture Minister has stated that Bulgaria will be one of those countries seeking compensation (presumably from the EC?)[5]

Conclusions

Reaction throughout Europe and beyond has varied from indignant to hysterical. But, who’s to blame? I point the finger, fair and square, at the official who set the whole issue of ‘source’ in motion.

A German media outlet [6] cites “Suddeutsche Zeitung” (among other reactions). SZ acknowledges the full seriousness of the E.coli outbreak, then remarks:

“In their eagerness to protect people, the German authorities were too quick to issue warnings about Spanish cucumbers. That is unfortunate, and certainly there should be compensation, but it is no reason for a diplomatic dispute. Europeans would be better off asking why the European Commission accepted the German warnings without carrying out its own tests. The sober conclusion is, therefore, to double check from now on.”

Please note the final sentence above. My point, entirely – from an alleged break-in, to prematurely blaming Spanish cucumbers. There’s a proper time to put verified information into the public domain.

Sofia prison: an unverified report (?), followed by official denial, by a source that might well have its own agenda.

Chernobyl: deliberate, highest-level decisions to deprive public of critical information.

Spanish cucumbers: scare-mongering finger-pointing without enough proof.

Pedantic post-scriptum

And, while we are banging on about verifiable facts: a cucumber is, scientifically, not a vegetable, but a fruit.

“Cucumbers are scientifically classified as fruits. Having an enclosed seed and developing from a flower, botanically speaking, cucumbers are classified as fruits, however, they tend to be seen as vegetables, being prepared and eaten as such.”[7] Same for the tomato!

Source [1]: Sofia Echo

Source [2]: Wales Online

Source [3]: Der Spiegel

Source [4]: Focus

Source [5]: Focus

Source [6]: Der Spiegel

Source [7]: Answers.com and others

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