Germany probes sprouts as killer bacteria source

6th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Germany on Monday probed locally grown sprouts as the likely source for a bacterial outbreak that has killed 22 people, as the European Union called urgent talks on the crisis.

The state agriculture ministry of Lower Saxony in northern Germany said it would issue results of the latest tests carried out at a small local organic farm suspected of producing the contaminated sprouts later Monday.

Klaus Verbeck, who runs the farm in Bienenbuettel, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Hamburg, told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung he uses no fertilisers for growing a variety of sprouts and had no idea how they might have been contaminated.

His farm has been ordered closed and all its products recalled, authorities said.

Gert Lindermann, Lower Saxony's agriculture and consumer affairs minister, announced Sunday that a link had been found between the farm and "all the main outbreaks" of the dangerous E. coli strain in the country.

But federal Health Minister Daniel Bahr and the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's national health authority, warned against rushing to judgement.

"We have clear indications that a farm in the district of Uelzen is a likely source of the contamination, but we must first wait for the results of the laboratory tests," Bahr said on television.

The Spanish government has sharply criticised Germany after officials in Hamburg, the epicentre of the scare, warned the outbreak might be linked to cucumbers imported from Spain.

Holger Eichele, spokesman for the federal agriculture and consumer affairs ministry, described Lower Saxony's findings as "a significant lead" and said regional authorities had been asked to check all sprout farms and seed imports.

News of the possible breakthrough came about a month after people were first infected in northern Germany.

The outbreak, which has spread to a dozen other European countries and the United States, has caused chaos among Europe's vegetable growers after Germany warned against eating raw cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce, particularly in the north of the country.

EU agriculture ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the crisis and its impact on vegetable producers.

The European Commission said it would call for special compensation for farmers whose sales of fresh produce have evaporated because of the outbreak.

The death toll, meanwhile, has climbed to 22, according to the latest figures by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Twenty-one died in Germany and one in Sweden -- a woman who had visited Germany.

Sprouts grown at the farm in the sights of the authorities include those from lettuce, azuki beans, mung beans, fenugreek, alfalfa and lentils.

They were delivered, either directly or through wholesalers, to restaurants in Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Hesse and Lower Saxony itself, the agriculture ministry said.

Some of the seeds were imported from abroad, the ministry added.

"It is significant that two women employees from the firm are ill with diarrhoea, and in one case EHEC (a strain of E. coli) has been diagnosed," Lindermann told reporters.

Early indications are that the farm "is at least one of the sources of contamination," he added.

The sprouts grow in temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius (around 98 degrees Fahrenheit) "which is ideal for all bacteria," according to Lindermann.

The case is similar to one in Japan where the 0157 strain of the E. coli bacterium infected more than 10,000 people and killed eight in 1996.

Outbreaks of the same strain hit the country sporadically, causing 14 more deaths over the span of seven years until 2003, according to the Japanese health ministry.

Japanese authorities suspected that radish sprouts were to blame, but they found no conclusive evidence and farmers later successfully sued for compensation.

Bahr has warned that the origin of the outbreak might never be found.

"From earlier outbreaks, we know that we can't always identify the source," he said.

The World Health Organisation has identified the bacterium as a rare E. coli strain (0104:H4) never before connected to a food poisoning outbreak. It is said to be extremely aggressive and resistant to antibiotics.

In Germany, 1,601 patients have been diagnosed with EHEC and a further 630 with haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening condition involving kidney malfunction, the Robert Koch Institute said Monday.

The EHEC rate of infection grew from no more than nine a day during the first 10 days in May, to finally reach a peak of 122 on May 23, the institute said.

© 2011 AFP

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