Werder, Germany (CNN) — Fruit and vegetable company Werder Frucht has to bring in additional workers these days or risk falling behind. But the workers are not busy selling the company’s tomatoes: they are busy throwing red, ripe produce in the trash.
Workers empty crate after crate of vine-ripened vegetables into a giant garbage container on the company’s premises in Werder near Berlin.
For the past four weeks — since an E. coli scare caused European consumers to all but abandon eating raw vegetables — demand in tomatoes has plummeted, says Petra Lack, Werder Frucht sales manager.
“At the beginning the demand dropped to about 10% of what we would normally sell, then it went to about 5%,” Lack says. “Now the demand has stabilized at about 25% of the normal amount of tomatoes we would be selling.”
Lack says a health warning from the German government urging people not to eat raw lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers has caused consumers to shy away from almost all vegetables.
“Things are awful at the moment,” Lack says standing next to the giant garbage container full of tomatoes. “We hope this won’t continue for the whole harvest season. But if the government keeps telling people not to eat lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers nothing will change.”
This week Werder Frucht will destroy about 270 tons of tomatoes. The cost of the purge will be measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars, company officials say. The company is keeping track of all the tomatoes it must destroy with plans to file damage claims against the European Union to recoup some of the losses.
“It is a real shame,” says Lack, “but we simply cannot sell these tomatoes. The consumers just aren’t buying.”
Werder Frucht criticizes the government for its handling of the outbreak of a deadly strain of E. coli in northern Germany. The outbreak has killed nearly two dozen people and will leave many others with lifelong impairments like kidney failure.
German authorities first issued a blanket warning for consumers to avoid eating raw lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Then authorities in Hamburg implied that Spanish cucumbers might be the origin of the E. coli stain, a claim later disproved. Now health officials are investigating a company in northern Germany that sells various types of sprouts, but so far lab samples have shown no traces of bacterial infection.
The number of new cases of infection has been falling significantly, German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said Wednesday.
Spain has threatened to sue Germany for compensation as its farmers say their losses are rising to hundreds of millions of euros. The German agricultural association says so far farmers in Germany have lost about €50 million euros ($73.4 million) in revenue since the outbreak.
On Tuesday the EU said it would pay €150 million ($220 million) to farmers in Europe and that amount is expected to rise in the coming days as some countries have hinted more is needed to cover the damages to their farming sectors.
But farming is also about pride and Andre Becker, who heads the tomato production in a greenhouse complex on the outskirts of Berlin, says he would rather see his produce on dinner tables than be compensated for tossing vegetables in the trash.
“We produce according to strict standards,” Becker says as he is cutting ripe tomatoes off a vine. “We constantly monitor the water and the nutrients we give the plants and we have tested for E. coli — all tests have been negative.”
With a lot of sunny days, 2011 was promising to be a good year for tomatoes. The vegetables grow quickly and are firm, juicy and of a healthy red color. Becker says that makes it even more painful to throw so much of the crop away.
“Right now we have so much to do just harvesting to the tomatoes that we don’t really talk much about the situation,” he says. “But it really is a shame.”
The workers at the greenhouse have to keep harvesting the tomatoes or risk destroying the plants. Normally the produce would wind up in grocery stores within a day. Now the vast majority wind up in an air conditioned warehouse and then in a garbage container.
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