Page last updated at 10:44 GMT, Thursday, 2 June 2011 11:44 UK

Cucumbers not the flavour of the month in Berlin

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Berlin

Cucumbers and tomatoes are going to waste in Germany as shoppers play it safe in the latest food scare, opting instead for asparagus and other "safer" vegetables.

There are cucumbers at the Turkish market in Berlin - some, but not as many as usual.

The traders bark the merits of their produce in Turkish and German but they have not much to shout about Spanish cucumbers.

Many cucumbers are marked "Made In Holland" but remain unsold
They are Dutch, definitely Dutch

The few stalls that have decided to offer cucumbers have big piles of unsold ones, unsold even with the word "Holland" written all over the labels. And even at half the normal price - 99 cents (£0.86) instead of the usual two euros (£1.75) a kilo.

If you stand amongst the traders under the awnings in the drizzle, as I did, you will see a string of women - usually in their Turkish scarves - looking gingerly at the produce, particularly the cucumbers, before they finally put the big question - "Where exactly do those ones come from?"

They are told - as quick as a kitchen knife - that they are Dutch.

Sometimes the customer proceeds with the purchase and the cucumbers are grabbed from the barely diminished pile, and the paper bag is swirled.

But more often than not, the customer proceeds with her journey, empty bag in hand, ready for nice safe potatoes - or cabbage, green or red - or the "spargel".

Everything that is long and green is now suspect

Spargel is the thing - asparagus, which is now in season and of which Germans are very proud - white asparagus which the country devours in every form (wrapped in ham, bathed in sauce, as soup or just by itself) all part of an annual ritual.

Every restaurant boasts about its spargel. They say "as German as sausage", but "as German as spargel" would be much more accurate.

Consumer fear

At the Turkish market which spreads along the railway embankment, there are tomatoes too - great big, red ones - piles of them, unsold and squashy.

Market trader selling cucumbers in Turkish market in Berlin
Serkan Turkan's half price cucumbers are still going unsold

When I left in the early afternoon, they were already being tipped by the pile into the big waste bins at the entrance by Yorckstrasse S-Bahn station.

The traders do their best, shouting out the bargains in Turkish and German.

But you cannot beat fear, and that is what consumers now have.

And fear mounts with uncertainty.

The German authorities initially blamed Spanish cucumbers and then un-blamed them, saying they could not be sure.

So everything that is long and green is now suspect.

Serkan Turkan, who runs a stall at the far end of the market, explained to me that, in the minds of many customers, all cucumbers are tainted.

People do not distinguish between Spanish and Dutch produce.

Spanish politicians go on television and munch and crunch through a cucumber to prove there is nothing so safe as a Spanish one.

In the Turkish market in Berlin, that cuts little ice.

What customers need is clarity.

And clarity may come through some mind-blowing science but, more likely, it will come from old-fashioned detective work - just asking survivors what they ate and where, and then going to the store they bought it from and finding out where the batch came from and so on, backwards, until the lines meet in one farm or market.

Bug mystery

For the scientists in the laboratories, the problem is that this strain of E. coli is very rare and very virulent (0104:H4, if you want to know).

What is E coli?
E. coli
Escherichia coli is a type of bacteria present in the gut of humans and other animals
Most strains are harmless
Some strains are able to produce a toxin that can cause symptoms such as severe cramps and diarrhoea

One of its mysteries is that it seems to hit women far more than men.

Virtually all the people who have died have been female.

One theory originally posited was that women are healthier eaters than men, which they are, tending to go more for low-calorie, organic cucumbers than the high-calorie bratwurst favoured by men.

But that theory, too, has had cold water poured over it.

The scientists trying to unravel the secrets of the bug think it may just be something about this particular strain that finds women congenial hosts.

Just as some ethnic groups are more prone than others, so one gender - in this case female - might be more prone to this particular strain.


So runs the alternative theory to the much-favoured "killer health food" or "killer organic" line favoured by tabloid newspapers.

But the truth is that nobody knows.

So mystery and confusion reign - and that is playing very badly at the markets of Germany.

And if you need very squishy tomatoes, I know a place to get them - the Turkish market in Berlin.

But no need to rush - there are enough stocks to last.

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