Germany in the dark over mystery killer bacteria

1st June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Germany remained in the dark on Wednesday over the origin of a killer bacteria that has left at least 16 dead, triggered the threat of a lawsuit and virtually shut down imports of vegetables across Europe.

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

In Madrid Spain threatened to sue Hamburg for damages after the German city 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.

Germany maintained its warning to consumers about eating raw cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce, seen as the most likely source for the contamination that has killed 15 in Germany and one woman in Sweden and left hundreds seriously ill in hospital.

Initial tests on cucumbers imported from Spain found that while these were indeed contaminated with a potentially deadly enterohamorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), the bacteria's strand was not that responsible for the current outbreak.

"As before the source remains unidentified," according to Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks, the chief health official in the northern port-city of Hamburg, which has seen the highest proportion of cases.

EHEC poisoning, in the worst of cases, can lead to full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a condition associated with bloody diarrhoea and kidney failure.

A spokesman for the German Federation of Farmers (DBV) 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.

"I haven't had any cucumbers to sell since Friday as my wholesaler has stopped delivering them. Lettuce and tomatoes are also selling poorly," one market stall vendor said in Berlin.

Spain's vegetable and fruit exporters estimate damages of more than 200 million euros ($290 million) 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.

"The bacteria is not in Spain," Rubalcaba said. "Once the truth is re-established, what we need to do is repair the damages, which are not small: we have lost a lot of money and a lot of our image."

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.

The incubation period can be as long as a week, doctors say.

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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