Germany backtracks on sprouts as E. coli source

Jun 06, 2011 By JUERGEN BAETZ and DAVID RISING , Associated Press
A man balances on a pile of cucumbers collected for destruction at a greenhouse compound outside Bucharest, Romania, Monday, June 6, 2011. Producers destroyed thousands of tons of cucumbers over the past two days, according to local media, after their production was either turned back from exports or refused for sale by supermarkets in Romania for fear of E. coli bacteria contamination. The current crisis is the deadliest known E. coli outbreak, killing at least 22 people and sickening more than 2,300 across Europe. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

(AP) -- First they pointed a finger at Spanish cucumbers. Then they cast suspicion on sprouts from Germany. Now German officials appear dumbfounded as to the source of the deadliest E. coli outbreak in modern history, and one U.S. expert called the investigation a "disaster."

Backtracking for the second time in a week, officials Monday said preliminary tests have found no evidence that vegetable sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany were to blame.

The surprise U-turn came only a day after the same state agency, Lower Saxony's agriculture ministry, held a news conference to announce that the sprouts appeared to be the culprit in the outbreak that has killed 22 people and sickened more than 2,330 others across Europe, most of them in Germany, over the past month.

Andreas Hensel, head of Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, warned, "We have to be clear on this: Maybe we won't be able anymore to identify the source."

Last week, German officials pointed to tainted cucumbers from Spain as a possible cause, igniting vegetable bans and heated protests from Spanish farmers, who suffered heavy financial losses. Researchers later concluded the Spanish cucumbers were contaminated with a different strain of E. coli.

"This investigation has been a disaster," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The Associated Press.

"This kind of wishy-washy response is incompetent," he said, accusing German authorities of casting suspicion on cucumbers and sprouts without firm data.

The European Union's health Commissioner defended German investigators, saying they were under extreme pressure as the crisis unfolded.

"We have to understand that people in certain situations do have a responsibility to inform their citizens as soon as possible of any danger that could exist to them," John Dalli said in Brussels.

In outbreaks, it is not unusual for certain foods to be suspected at first, then ruled out.

In 2008 in the U.S., raw tomatoes were initially implicated in a nationwide salmonella outbreak. Consumers shunned tomatoes, costing the tomato industry millions. Weeks later, jalapeno peppers grown in Mexico were determined to be the cause.

In 2006, lab tests mistakenly pointed to green onions in an E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell restaurants in the U.S. Investigators considered cheddar cheese and ground beef as the source before settling on lettuce.

With the culprit in the European crisis still a mystery, authorities stopped short of giving sprouts a clean bill of health. German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner reiterated the warning against eating sprouts, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, which have also come under suspicion.

The agriculture ministry for Lower-Saxony state said 23 samples from the organic sprouts farm tested negative for the highly aggressive, "super-toxic" strain of E. coli that is killing people, with tests on 17 more samples still under way.

"A conclusion of the investigations and a clarification of the contamination's origin is not expected in the short term," the ministry said.

However, the negative test results do not mean that previous sprout batches weren't contaminated.

"Contaminated food could have been completely processed and sold by now," ministry spokeswoman Natascha Manski said.

In that case, the number of people stricken might keep rising for at least another week as the produce that could be causing the infections may have already been delivered to restaurants and grocery stores.

More than 630 of the victims are hospitalized with a rare, serious complication that can lead to kidney failure.

In a major difference from other E. coli outbreaks, women - who tend to eat more fresh produce - are by far the most affected this time, said Germany's national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute. The majority of them are between 20 and 50 years old and tend to be highly educated, very fit, and lead healthy lifestyles, Friedrich Hagenmueller of Asklepios Hospital in Hamburg said.

"What do they have in common: They are thin, clean, pictures of health," he said.

Ulrike Seinsche is one of the women diagnosed with the serious complication that can lead to kidney failure.

"I really got scared when the blood results came and were so bad and the doctors became hectic," she said from her hospital bed in Hamburg.She was quickly transferred into intensive care, got cramps and suffered "real death fear," she said. "Now, I'm actually stable."

Osterholm, whose team has investigated a number of foodborne outbreaks in the U.S., said authorities should trace foods back to their suppliers - which is exactly what led German officials to single out the sprout producer, linking it to several restaurants where more than 50 people fell ill.

Since 1996, about 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness in the U.S. have been linked to raw or lightly cooked sprouts. Sprouts were also implicated a 1996 E. coli outbreak in Japan that killed 12 people and reportedly sickened more than 9,000.

At an EU health ministers meeting Monday in Luxembourg, Germany defended itself against accusations it had acted prematurely in pointing to Spanish cucumbers.

"The virus is so aggressive that we had to check every track," said Health State Secretary Annette Widmann-Mauz.

The EU will hold an emergency meeting of farm ministers Tuesday to address the crisis, including a ban imposed by Russia on all EU vegetables.

Explore further: Can robots help stop the Ebola outbreak?

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

E. coli outbreak blamed on German veggie sprouts

Jun 06, 2011

(AP) -- The terrifying E. coli outbreak in Europe appears to have been caused by vegetable sprouts grown on an organic farm in Germany, an agriculture official said Sunday as the toll climbed to at least ...

Germany: 365 more sickened in bacterial outbreak

Jun 01, 2011

(AP) -- The number of people reported sick in Germany from a foodborne bacterial outbreak that has already killed 16 spiked over the last 24 hours, with nearly 100 more people suffering from severe and potentially ...

More sick, dead, in European E. coli outbreak

May 31, 2011

(AP) -- Two new deaths linked to a mysterious bacterial outbreak in Europe blamed on tainted vegetables were reported Tuesday, including the first outside Germany, as the number of people falling ill continued ...

E. coli outbreak spreading in Germany

May 27, 2011

More than 270 people in Germany have fallen seriously ill because of potentially deadly bacteria, which has been found in imported Spanish cucumbers, officials said Friday.

Germany upholds warning for vegetables

Jun 01, 2011

(AP) -- Researchers still have not been able to pinpoint the cause for a deadly foodborne bacterial outbreak that has hit Germany and other European nations, Germany's agriculture minister said Wednesday.

Smoking gun elusive in deadly E. coli outbreak

Jun 01, 2011

(AP) -- European health officials tracking one of the worst E. coli outbreaks on record might never know where it came from. It's a sad fact of life in food poisoning cases: There often is no smoking gun.

Recommended for you

Can robots help stop the Ebola outbreak?

2 hours ago

The US military has enlisted a new germ-killing weapon in the fight against Ebola—a four-wheeled robot that can disinfect a room in minutes with pulses of ultraviolet light.

New bird flu case in Germany

2 hours ago

A worrying new strain of bird flu has been observed for the first time in a wild bird in northern Germany, the agriculture ministry said Saturday.

Mali announces new Ebola case

Nov 22, 2014

Mali announced Saturday a new case of Ebola in a man who is fighting for his life in an intensive care unit in the capital Bamako.

Plague outbreak kills 40 in Madagascar: WHO

Nov 22, 2014

An outbreak of plague has killed 40 people in Madagascar, the World Health Organization said, warning that the disease could spread rapidly in the country's densely populated capital Antananarivo.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.