It started on September 19. In the East German states of Brandenburg, Saxony, Berlin, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt, a lot of children and adolescents as well as a few adults suddenly fell ill with vomiting and diarrhea. It took about a week before it was officially acknowledged as a foodborne illness. The rate of infections peaked around September 25 – 28, by which time thousands were suffering from gastroenteritis.
The origin was unknown. The cause was unknown. Investigating health authorities on the Federal and State levels didn’t even know if viruses or toxins from bacteria were at fault. They focused on lunches served at school cafeterias, particularly those prepared by the commercial kitchens of Sodexo, a company based in Rüsselsheim, in the State of Hesse.
By October 1, the Health Ministry of the State of Saxony found that about half of the children and kitchen staff tested had been infected with the norovirus, and they thought it might be the “trigger of the current events.” Most kids got through the disease relatively quickly and without complications, but 32 had to be hospitalized. By October 5, over 11,200 people had become ill, according to the Robert Koch Institute—the largest wave of food poisoning ever recorded in Germany.
And on October 5, authorities spoke up. “We have made a major step forward in the investigation,” said Holger Eichele, a spokesman for the Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection (BMELV). Turns out, a wholesaler had sold contaminated frozen strawberries to commercial kitchens of three companies that made cafeteria food for schools and kindergartens, among them Sodexo. Sources among the food investigators stated that the strawberries had most likely come from China.
When the strawberries were thawed to be used in desserts, they weren’t always fully heated, and the noroviruses, which are particularly resistant to cold and heat, survived. The different thawing processes used in various facilities could explain why infections occurred in some schools but not in others, though all used the strawberries from the same shipment.
Trade relations between Germany and China are of utmost importance to export-dependent Germany. Its exports to China have seen phenomenal growth over the last few years, and the Chinese have become large investors in Germany. So the China-side of the contaminated-strawberries story will be assiduously downplayed.