Germans fail to find smoking gun in killer bacteria chase

7th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Germany redoubled efforts Tuesday to trace the source of a bacteria outbreak that has killed 23 amid warnings it might never be found, while the EU met to discuss aid for farmers hit hard by the crisis.

Hopes that the source of contamination had finally been located suffered a setback on Monday when initial probes carried out on a farm growing a variety of sprouts in the northern state of Lower Saxony proved negative.

Authorities were expected to release the results from 17 more samples of seeds, water, and work surfaces taken from the farm on Tuesday.

This followed tests carried out last month on cucumbers imported from Spain that also proved negative.

German authorities nevertheless have maintained their warning to consumers against eating raw tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and sprouts until the cause of the E. coli outbreak can be explained.

The bacteria has killed 22 people in Germany and one in Sweden and left more than 2,000 ill, with symptoms ranging from bloody diarrhoea to, in full-blown cases, kidney failure.

The rare and virulent bacteria strain is found in the digestive track of humans rather than of cattle, according to Lothar Beutin, an expert at Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

He told the Tagesspiegel newspaper he believes it unlikely the bacteria could have been passed on by liquid manure from animals.

Meanwhile German officials defended their decision to issue warnings on vegetables to the public even before full testing results were known.

Lower Saxony Agriculture Minister Gerd Lindermann, who Sunday had said there were "clear indications" of a connection between a local sprout farm and areas contaminated, on Tuesday admitted a smoking gun might never be found.

"It's quite possible that we'll never find the active contaminant," Lindermann told Bild newspaper.

"But this doesn't take away from statements warning about sprouts.

"The warning goes for as long as investigations are underway and suspicions have not been laid to rest," he added.

Andreas Hensel, head of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, has also warned that "it is possible we shall never be able to identify the source" of the contamination.

Similar outbreaks in Japan between 1996 and 2003 infected more than 10,000 people and left 22 dead, according to the Japanese health ministry.

Radish sprouts were widely suspected, but scientists were never able to prove the connection and farmers successfully sued for compensation.

With sales of vegetables now plunging across Europe, EU agriculture ministers were meeting in Luxembourg to discuss emergency aid to farmers.

Spanish farmers have been especially badly hit by an initial warning against their cucumbers, but other European countries have also suffered as consumers shun greens and countries such as Russia ban vegetable imports.

Madrid has said it will demand full compensation from Germany for the losses which Spain's fruit and vegetables exporters association, FEPEX, estimated at 225 million euros ($328 million) per week since the crisis began.

The German farmers' union has said for its part that its members are losing some five million euros a day.

"We have told Germany that it must reimburse us for the loss. If it covers 100 percent, which is what we are demanding, the affair will be closed. Otherwise we reserve the right (to take) legal action," Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar said on Monday.

"We are not going to allow our producers to lose one cent, because they are not to blame," she added.

EU health commissioner John Dalli said the ministers would also review the bloc's food safety alert system to ensure that warnings have "scientific basis and proof" before becoming public.

In Germany, opposition party members have criticized the slow pace of the investigation, suggesting that the country's federal system was partly to blame because as matters such as health are dealt with by both national and regional authorities.

© 2011 AFP

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