/ 10 June 2011

Germany’s E. coli accusations sprout producer outrage

The European Union’s health commissioner has criticised Germany for rushing out “premature conclusions” about the source of a mass E. coli outbreak, saying such actions have spread public alarm and damaged agriculture.

Speaking ahead of emergency talks among EU agriculture ministers, John Dalli also said the outbreak, which has killed 22 people and made at least 2200 ill, had been contained to a relatively small area around the city of Hamburg. “There is no reason to take action on a European level. [EU-wide] measures against any product are disproportionate,” Dalli told the European parliament.

At the start of the outbreak, which involves a newly identified virulent strain of the bacterium, Germany said Spanish cucumbers from Hamburg’s market had been found to contain E. coli. Following fierce protests from Spain, which relies heavily on farm exports, German ministers eventually admitted they had got it wrong. The same happened on Monday, when tests on bean sprouts from an organic farm in Lower Saxony, identified by German officials as almost certainly the cause of the outbreak, came back negative.

“It is crucial that national authorities do not rush to give information on the source of infection which is not proven by bacteriological analysis, as this spreads unjustified fears — all over Europe and creates problems for food producers selling products in the EU and outside the EU,” Dalli said.

The source of the bacterium behind a deadly outbreak of E. coli in Germany remains a mystery. Our slideshow tracks the outbreak and the mounting concern.

The ministerial meeting follows demands by EU farmers, particularly in Spain, for compensation for losses. Sales of salad vegetables have plummeted around the continent, while Russia has banned imports of all vegetables from the bloc.

There is hope that the Russian ban might ease. The country’s chief sanitary official, Gennady Onishchenko, told the Interfax news agency that EU officials had promised to pass on samples of the E. coli strain, which would help Russia make a decision.

Two weeks after news of the mass outbreak emerged, the source of the bacterium remains a mystery. German ministers had said there were “strong and clear indications” that bean sprouts from the Gartenhof organic farm, 64km from Hamburg, had spread the E. coli. However, a first set of 23 results from 40 samples taken at the farm were negative, Lower Saxony’s agriculture ministry said.

While the structure of the compensation package and the amount of aid have yet to be defined, the European commission said on Monday it expected ministers to reach provisional agreement at the Luxembourg summit.

The tests at the Gartenhof farm came back too late to prevent the nearby small town of Bienenbuttel, in Lower Saxony’s rural heartland, from being overrun by reporters. German officials said the farm could still be the source of the outbreak, even if all tests were negative.

Bean sprouts seemed a likely culprit, having previously been implicated in E. coli outbreaks in the United States and Japan. They are grown in water heated to 38°C, ideal for bacteria to flourish. US scientists warn that young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems should not eat them raw, advice now taken up by the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom.

British microbiologist Hugh Pennington, who led inquiries into two major UK outbreaks of E. coli, said: “They’ve done experimental studies on contaminating bean sprouts and seeing what happens to the bacteria during sprouting, and you can get up to a million fold increase in bacteria.”

In Brussels, one EU source said the most likely solution being discussed was to extend an existing EU crisis-prevention scheme which compensates fruit and vegetable producers for withdrawing products from the market.

Under this plan, producers would receive, until the end of June, about 30% of the value of unsold products paid directly from the EU budget, the source said. Spain has threatened legal action against German regional authorities for wrongly identifying Spanish cucumbers, but the commission has insisted the crisis affects all EU producers. —