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Germany says sprouts source of killer bacteria outbreak

11 june 2011, 11:31
Germany blamed vegetable sprouts Friday for a bacteria outbreak that has killed at least 33, left some 3,000 ill and cost farmers across Europe hundreds of millions of euros in lost sales, AFP reports.

After a weeks-long hunt for the elusive source of the contamination, German officials said they were confident they had found the origin.

"It's the sprouts," Reinhard Burger, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, the national disease centre, told a news conference on the outbreak of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) in northern Germany.

"People who ate sprouts were found to be nine times more likely to have bloody diarrhoea or other signs of EHEC infection than those who did not," he said, citing a study of more than 100 people who fell ill after dining in restaurants.

Test results on a packet of vegetable sprouts recovered from the rubbish bin of two sick people living in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia later provided the first direct trail evidence for the virulent bacteria.

The sprouts, which showed traces of the EHEC strain 0104, were grown at a farm in the northern village of Bienenbuettel on which suspicion had fallen last weekend. The farm has been closed and all its products recalled.

The government had earlier lifted a warning against eating raw tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers which had dealt a stinging blow to farmers at the peak of the fresh produce season in Europe.

"This is a good sign for consumers because we now have more clarity," Health Minister Daniel Bahr told reporters, as he defended the government's crisis management against criticism from the opposition and abroad.

"We are pretty relieved," Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner added at the joint news conference, in comments echoed by the German farmers' association.

All 33 confirmed fatalities, three of which were reported Friday, have been in Germany except for one woman who died in Sweden after visiting Germany.

The warning against raw salad vegetables, first issued two weeks ago, has cost growers in Europe hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) in lost sales and sparked diplomatic spats across Europe.

The Netherlands welcomed the development as "excellent news".

"We hope it will restore consumer confidence in Germany and get the export industry back on track," Murco Mijnlieff, an agriculture ministry spokesman, told AFP.

Germany is the Netherlands' largest export market in this field: exports of cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce exports to Germany worth 1.1 billion euros ($ 1.4 billion) annually, the Dutch ministry said.

German authorities had initially identified cucumbers imported from Spain as responsible for the outbreak, but later retracted the statement based on subsequent tests, infuriating Madrid and sparking threats of lawsuits.

And the European Union blasted Russia for imposing a "disproportionate" blanket ban on vegetable imports from the 27-nation bloc.

Moscow agreed at a summit with the EU on Friday to lift the ban although it was not immediately clear when the announcement would come into effect.

In an attempt to help hard-hit farmers, the EU has offered 210 million euros ($303 million) in compensation.

The outbreak is believed to have started at the beginning of May, with the first people falling ill in the second week of the month, the Robert Koch Institute said.

To date, more than 2,800 people have been affected in Germany, it added, although other estimates have put the number higher.

People in at least 14 countries have also been made ill by the outbreak, most of them having recently visited northern Germany where some 75 percent of the cases have been registered, most of them among women.

"The number of new infections is declining," Burger told the news conference Friday following announcements of a drop in cases earlier this week.

But he warned that the "outbreak is not yet over", saying that some people were still falling ill after being contaminated several days ago.

After criticism of the government's handling of the crisis, the agriculture and health ministries said Berlin would review the response on the federal and state level.

Bahr insisted that Germany had been right to warn against eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce as long as the source of the contamination had not been pinpointed.

"Public health is the priority," he said.

By Deborah Cole

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