By Scott Rosenstein
Saving lives is an easy policy to defend. And advocating saving lives is an easy way to roll out policies that might otherwise be considered opportunistic. The ongoing E. coli outbreak in northern Germany is no exception. To be sure, the situation is grave. To date, 24 people have died and more than 2,400 have gotten sick. The outbreak has also destroyed livelihoods: Spanish cucumber farmers, wrongly identified as the source of the outbreak, have estimated losses of $280 million per week, while vegetable sales throughout Europe have plunged. The source of the outbreak has yet to be identified, spawning further anxiety and economic dislocation. But official responses to the crisis may be more self-serving than well-guided.
On 2 June, Russia announced that it was banning imports of fresh vegetables from the entire EU region. The Russian ambassador to the EU defended the move, saying: "I can certainly understand the grievances of EU farmers and I sympathize, but you can certainly understand no material loss is comparable to the loss of human life." His plea is hard to bicker with, but from an epidemiological standpoint the ban is provocative. All the E. coli cases recorded in the past month can be traced to northern Germany, suggesting that the contaminated food (regardless of where it originated) has been confined to that region.
So why is Russia taking such an aggressive stance? While health
concerns may be part of the story, the primary drivers are likely economic
Russia's ban may or may not work itself. The country's vegetable trade imbalance with the EU is partly attributable to the generous agricultural subsidies that EU farmers enjoy and that stifle competition from abroad. The ban will do little to convince EU policymakers to rethink those subsidies, and in fact, may reinforce support for them. The EU just announced a $210 million aid package for farmers affected by the E. coli outbreak, and more money may get passed around if farmers continue to suffer. Moreover, if the outbreak is past its peak, as some German officials are cautiously suggesting, and if Russia's ban threatens to distract from the upcoming Russia-EU summit, starts to jeopardize Russia's hopes of joining the WTO, or bumps up the price of vegetables at home, Moscow will likely backtrack.
Nevertheless, the world's convoluted food supply chain will continue to create complicated, costly, and sometimes deadly food safety scandals. And while some responses will be grounded in caution and scientific rigor, officials will also continue to take the opportunity to curry favor with domestic constituencies. In the coming weeks, particularly if the outbreak continues spreading, both tactics will likely be on display. Keep an eye on:
Scott Rosenstein is an analyst in Eurasia Group's global health practice.
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.