Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cucumber ethics

Last week’s E-coli outbreak in Germany was another interesting case study in the ethics of risk management. A ferocious looking bacteria, thought to be carried by the very food we eat whenever we feel like a healthy option (i.e. salad vegetables) has led to a scare that has plummeted many of Europe’s farmers into severe financial troubles. On the face of it the numbers don’t quite hit home why exactly consumers and regulators across Europe (and especially in Germany) have reacted so strongly: while, sadly, 26 people have died so far from the E-coli outbreak, this number looks negligible in comparison to Germany’s 3,651 fatalities in road accidents annually (in 2010). Banning Spanish cucumbers – sure thing! But touching the fundamental right of Germans to speed without limit on the Autobahn? No way, no one even thinks about that.

Fair enough maybe - food is one of those things that does raise the risk perception more than almost any other. But one of the more curious things about the outbreak was the initial culprit: cucumbers (especially as attention eventually turned to those evil little bean sprouts). But of course it wasn't just any old cucumbers - still less German cucumbers - but Spanish cucumbers that were blamed. In a continuously integrating EU economy, suddenly a poor little vegetable becomes the carrier of nationalistic identities and accusations.

There is something about cucumbers, one has to admit. In the German context, the vegetable has once before been at the centre of a rather black humoured joke just in the wake of the unification in 1989. The German satirical magazine ‘Titanic’ opened with a picture of ‘Zonen-Gabi’ (‘Gabi from the East’) holding up ‘her first banana’: a cucumber, peeled in the style of a banana. This of course was to make fun of the chronic absence of exotic fruits in the East during the time of the wall. The cucumber became an epitome of the split national identity that divided the unifying halves of the country at the time.

Poor cucumbers have also been at the centre of many jokes about the regulatory frenzy of EU bureaucrats in Europe. Allegedly there exist norms that lay out not merely how long, hard and green a cucumber must be but which even stipulate the degree of a cucumber's curvature: at maximum, its arc can be no more than 10 millimetres per 10 centimetre length. Imposed on poor Polish or Czech farmers prior to their countries’ accession to the EU, these regulations made the vegetable a symbol of the hegemonic power of Brussels and the nearly totalitarian zeal of regulating even the smallest little detail. All symbolized by, yes, cucumbers!

How political the innocent vegetable can become was demonstrated nowhere more strongly than in Iraq. According the UK newspaper the Telegraph, a few years ago Al-Qaeda leaders in Anbar province allegedly banned women from buying cucumbers because they considered them to be ‘male’ vegetables, and therefore in violation of religious law. Tomatoes, however, were perfectly fine for women to buy because they were considered female.

Well, if we were to do more research on the cultural history of cucumbers, who knows where we might end up - but Crane and Matten have no intention of jeopardizing the ‘General Audiences’ rating of their blog! Still, who would have thought that the lowly green vegetable could be such a repository of ethical values and a tool for inter-cultural conflict. So next time you're in the supermarket remember to take a second look at those cucumbers. There's so much more to them than meets the eye.

Top photo by Surian Soosay. Reproduced under creative commons licence


  1. A minor point but German autobahn's are safer than French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and US highways despite the difference in speed limits. Speed is a minor factor in road accidents (although clearly a higher speed results in a more serious impact). In the UK (where I have figures for) most road accidents and fatalities occur below the speed limits and are more related to other dangerous driving, or driving too fast for the conditions

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