EU gets a taste of its own medicine

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E Coli strands

Article Highlights

  • Deadly mutant strain of E. coli broke out in Germany and spread across at least 12 countries; left 1,800 infected and 18 dead

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  • The coffee and tobacco DDT was found on are hundreds of times more carcinogenic than DDT itself

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  • Maybe the EU is correct that Russia's ban on EU fruits and vegetables is unacceptable

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In late May, a deadly mutant strain of E. coli broke out in Germany and spread across at least 12 countries. The bacterium, which is more toxic and infectious than any other known strain of E coli, left 1,800 infected and 18 dead by early June.

As hospitals across Europe treated hundreds of cases, regulators acted swiftly. Health officials advised those travelling to Germany to avoid all raw vegetables. Early finger-pointing at organic Spanish cucumbers was found to be baseless, but not before nine countries turned away imports of salad vegetables, costing Spain €200 million a week, for which it is seeking compensation.

"German farmers are losing millions of dollars a day, and some may even be bankrupted if problems continue." -- Roger Bate

Russian regulators banned imports of all fresh vegetables from EU nations, with Russian Prime Minister Putin saying Russia did not want to poison her people.

EU officials claim Russia's trade restrictions are 'disproportionate'. German farmers are losing millions of dollars a day, and some may even be bankrupted if problems continue.

But there may well be wry smiles among some of Africa's farmers who were recently subject to far more unfair action from Europe. Four years ago Uganda's Department of Health, supported financially by the US President's Malaria Initiative, began spraying the insecticide DDT to combat malaria mosquitoes. Thousands of Uganda's children die every year from this fatal disease and spraying small amounts of DDT indoors can help prevent the mosquitoes from biting.

The initiative was an immediate success but it was terminated because local farmers were worried that their exports, particularly their exports of tobacco, would be rejected by EU for having detectable DDT traces.

Everyone knows that the EU's agricultural subsidy policies are absurd, leading to over-production and inefficiency. To make these inefficiencies less obvious, regulators limit competition by imposing strict limits on allowable pesticide concentrations, most of which make no scientific sense. EU trade rules allow maximum residues of DDT on produce of 0.05 mg/kg. There is no scientific basis for such a low limit.

DDT is not sprayed outdoors on or near crops. But, in Uganda, smallholder farmers store their produce in sacks inside dwellings that may have been sprayed with DDT. In such instances it is likely that trace amounts of DDT will find their way on to products. And the evidence from products ranging from coffee to tobacco shows tiny concentrations were indeed found when products were stored in houses sprayed with DDT.

But what is laughable about the EU's DDT residue limit is that the coffee and tobacco DDT was found on are hundreds of times more carcinogenic than DDT itself. Smoking is a known cause of cancer and there are 19 identified carcinogens in coffee. Yet tobacco buyers, including British American Tobacco, supported the farmers' assertion that DDT use would damage trade. They conveniently ignored the carcinogens in their products to argue that DDT should not be used. But what about coffee?

My colleagues Richard Tren and Donald Roberts calculated that the dose of DDT consumed by drinkers of coffee that the EU banned, would have been 12,000 times below the no observable effect level (NOEL). The NOEL is established based on long-term experiments in which humans ingested DDT following which observations were made to determine any human health effects. It is safe to say that the impact on the health of coffee drinkers would have been zero.

Indeed, despite thousands of studies over several decades, no replicated scientifically valid study has found any human harm from DDT. Nevertheless, a successful life-saving programme was terminated because of EU trade rules.

Of course two wrongs do not make a right, and maybe the EU is correct that Russia's ban on EU fruits and vegetables is unacceptable. But E. coli is lethal, and the German strain may be uniquely dangerous; the same cannot be said for DDT. So, while EU's farmers may be losing part of their livelihoods due to Russia's actions, the EU's actions against Uganda's producers cost the lives of numerous children.

Roger Bate is the Legatum Fellow in Global Prosperity at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Roger
Bate
  • Roger Bate is an economist who researches international health policy, with a particular focus on tropical disease and substandard and counterfeit medicines. He also writes on general development policy in Asia and Africa. He writes regularly for AEI's Health Policy Outlook.
  • Phone: 202-828-6029
    Email: rbate@aei.org
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    Name: Katherine Earle
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