Germany still in dark over mystery killer bacteria

1st June 2011, Comments 0 comments

The number of people sickened by a mysterious killer bacteria grew on Wednesday, two weeks after the outbreak in Germany, while fears over tainted vegetables hit European farmers hard.

Madrid threatened to sue German officials who initially warned that the virulent bacteria, which has already killed 15 in Germany and one in Sweden, was borne by cucumbers imported from Spain before correcting their findings.

Fears meanwhile have shaken the agricultural sector, and not only in Spain.

Several countries have restricted vegetable imports, shops across Europe have withdrawn and dumped produce, while consumers have grown increasingly wary.

Scientists and health officials say they have identified the virulent E. coli bacteria responsible for the outbreak, which has mainly affected northern Germany, but are unable to say what caused it or who was responsible.

Confirmed cases of the full-blown disease -- known as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) -- a condition associated with bloody diarrhoea and kidney failure, rose to 470 from the 373 reported on Tuesday, said Germany's national disease institute, the Robert Koch Institute.

Regional officials say 15 people have died in Germany, while Sweden reported the death of one woman who had recently travelled to Germany.

The Spanish government meanwhile threatened to sue Hamburg for damages after the German city, one of the hardest hit, pointed to Spanish cucumbers as the source of a outbreak.

"We do not rule out taking action against the authorities who called into question the quality of our products," Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told Spanish radio.

Hamburg said it had found some of the killer bacteria on cucumbers imported from Spain, but later acknowledged it was not the same strand of enterohamorrhagic E. coli that is responsible for the current outbreak.

"As before the source remains unidentified," Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks, the chief health official in Hamburg, said.

German officials however are maintaining their warning to consumers about eating raw cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce, seen as the most likely source for the contamination, and consumer affairs' ministry spokesman Holger Eichele told a news conference the Hamburg warning had been "justified".

"Given the potential risks, quick warnings were needed independently of the strand of bacteria involved," he said.

A spokesman for the German Federation of Farmers (DBV) meanwhile spoke of a "catastrophic" mood among vegetable producers.

"They are losing at the very least two to three million euros ($3 to 4 million) per day," because "consumers everywhere are suspicious" of their produce, he said.

The Federation of Fruit and Vegetable Producers, for its part, estimated losses at between 4 and 5 million euros per day.

Spain's vegetable and fruit exporters estimate damages of more than 200 million euros a week as importers across Europe stop buying Spanish produce because of the scare.

Both Spain and The Netherlands are demanding compensation from the European Union because of the sudden slump in vegetable exports.

Around Europe, cases of the food poisoning -- confirmed or suspected -- have been reported in Denmark, Britain, The Netherlands, Austria, France, Spain, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic.

But all apparently stem from people who recently travelled to northern Germany where the outbreak started in mid-May.

European health and consumer policy commissioner John Dalli on Tuesday said determining the source of the outbreak was "an absolute priority" and that the European Commission was working with the German authorities.

The German Institute for Safety Assessment (BfR) said German and French doctors have developed a test which identifies the virulent strand of E. coli.

"We hope that this test will allow the source of the infection to be identified," the institute said in a statement.

© 2011 AFP

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