E. Coli Epidemic Tests Fail to Support Sprouts as Outbreak Culprit

Officials in Lower Saxony announced over the weekend that raw sprouts were the likely cause of the ongoing E. coli epidemic in Germany because many of the people infected with the deadly bacteria had eaten sprouts from a farm in the northwestern state. But test results released on Monday failed to support the theory.
Tests for the E. coli bacteria in suspected raw sprouts turned up negative on Monday.

Tests for the E. coli bacteria in suspected raw sprouts turned up negative on Monday.

Foto: Julian Stratenschulte/ dpa

First it was raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce that were under suspicion for causing the E. coli outbreak that has now killed 21 people and infected more than 2,200 others in Germany, with another death and even more cases reported in other European countries. Over the weekend sprouts became the next suspected culprit, when Gert Lindemann, agriculture minister for the western state of Lower Saxony, said officials were conducting lab tests on samples from a farm in the Uelzen district.

Indications were apparently so strong that sprouts were the cause of the outbreak that the ministry recommended consumers avoid eating them. But on Monday afternoon the ministry revealed that 23 of 40 samples taken from various locations on the sprout farm had tested negative for the bacteria. The remaining 17 samples must still be examined, the ministry said.

"Based on previous experience during the examination of part of the samples (the seeds in particular), we assume that intensive analytical efforts will need to be madebe necessary to identify the pathogen with certainty," the ministry said. But doing so will prove increasingly difficult because the epidemic broke out several weeks ago, they added.

The produce in question had been delivered by the Bienenbüttel organic farm to restaurants and stores linked to the outbreak. Two women at the company, which sells a variety of sprouts meant for raw consumption, have since fallen ill with diarrhea -- and one has been diagnosed with an E. coli infection. Operations have been suspended at the farm pending further test results.

According to the Lower Saxony Agriculture Ministry, the company cultivates 18 types of sprouts in barrels at a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit), and waters them with steam. "Those are also optimal conditions for the germ of all germs," Lindemann said. Authorities don't yet know how the sprouts could have been contaminated, but they were not fertilized with manure as some had speculated. Other possibilities could include contaminated water or seeds delivered from abroad, Lindemann said.

Klaus Verbeck, manager of the farm in Bienenbüttel told daily Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung he could not explain how the pathogen could have tainted his products because no animal fertilizers are used there. "Not even horn meal," he said, referring to a fertilizer made from animal horns and hooves.

Hospitals Struggling to Keep Up

The president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's federal institute for disease control and prevention, emphasized on Monday that a single cause had yet to be determined by researchers, who are following a number of different leads . Until researchers are able to determine the precise cause, health officials are still recommending that people avoid raw cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce -- particularly in northern Germany.

Since early May, some 2,231 people in Germany have been infected by the particularly dangerous strain  of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) bacteria, most near the northern port city of Hamburg, according to the RKI. About 630 of those infected with the bacteria in Germany have developed the life-threatening hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) which can cause kidney failure, the institute reported.

Dozens of people have also become ill in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and other European countries. Most are believed to have visited Hamburg or other parts of northern Germany.

In the most serious cases, when patients develop HUS, the symptoms are so severe that many must undergo dialysis treatment, and doctors fear it may cause permanent kidney damage for some. For unknown reasons, significantly more women than men have been affected.

Hospitals and clinics are reportedly working beyond their capacity to keep up with the epidemic and medical centers in northern Germany are calling for blood donations as supplies run low. Employees in some areas have been forced to work seven days a week to care for the ever-growing number of patients. "Our staff has been working for a good two weeks around the clock, and the people are voluntarily giving up their vacation and weekends, even sleeping here," said Oliver Grieve, spokesman for the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein.

Meanwhile, German Federal Health Minister Daniel Bahr visited the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) on Sunday to assess crisis management at the outbreak's epicenter ahead of a meeting planned for state and federal health and consumer ministers on Wednesday. "I have witnessed how the authorities have worked tirelessly on this, informing the citizens in good time and with transparency," he said.

EU Agriculture Ministers Meet

As Germany seeks to find the definitive cause of the E. coli outbreak, diplomatic tensions are simmering elsewhere in Europe over Berlin's handling of the crisis. Previous research had pointed to Spanish cucumbers as the source of the outbreak, but that later proved to be false. The development prompted diplomatic tensions between Madrid and Berlin over revenues lost by farmers. Spanish agricultural industry associations have estimated that farmers in the country are losing €200 million per week as a result of the E. coli claims.

Ahead of a meeting of EU agricultural ministers in which the E. coli emergency was to top the agenda in Luxembourg on Monday, Spanish Health Minister Leire Pajin told reporters: "We want to express our displeasure at how the crisis was handled, damaging the interests of our country. We want to ask for compensation for the serious and irreparable damages Spain has suffered and we will ask the European Commission to strengthen and improve the alert systems on food safety."

German officials, however, have defended their actions. Annette Widmann-Mauz, a senior official in the German Health Ministry said the illnesses had been "so aggressive" and the growth in cases "so massive" that issuing warnings about cucumbers had been the correct action to take.

"We truly owe that to the people because preventative health protection requires following every clue," she said.

kla -- with wires
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