Germany: Sprouts did cause deadly E. coli outbreak

German vegetable sprouts caused the E. coli outbreak that has killed 31 people and sickened more than 3,000, investigators announced Friday after tracking the bacteria from patients in hospital beds to restaurants and then farm fields.

Reinhard Burger, president of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's national disease control center, said the pattern of the outbreak had produced enough evidence to draw that conclusion even though no tests on sprouts from an organic farm in Lower Saxony had come back positive for the E. coli strain behind the outbreak.

"In this way, it was possible to narrow down epidemiologically the cause of the outbreak of the illness to the consumption of sprouts," Burger told reporters at a press conference with the heads of Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and its Federal Office for Consumer Protection. "It is the sprouts."

The breakthrough came after an expert team from the three institutes linked separate clusters of patients who had fallen sick to 26 restaurants and cafeterias that had received produce from the organic farm.

"It was like a crime thriller where you have to find the bad guy," said Helmut Tschiersky-Schoeneburg of the consumer protection agency.

"They even studied the menus, the ingredients, looked at bills and took pictures of the different meals, which they then showed to those who had fallen ill," said Andreas Hensel, head of the risk assessment agency.

Burger said all the tainted sprouts may have either been consumed or thrown away by now but warned that the crisis is not yet over and people should still not eat sprouts.

Authorities, however, were lifting the warning against eating cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. "Lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers should be eaten again — it is all healthy produce," Hensel said.

Russia agreed to lift its ban on European vegetable imports and Spanish farmers — who had been hardest hit as wary Europeans shunned vegetables — breathed a sigh of relief.

It is not unusual to lack a "smoking gun" in food-borne outbreaks, said Norman Noah, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has investigated numerous outbreaks.

He said the culprits are often identified only by epidemiological evidence because the contaminated food has long since disappeared by the time scientists begin taking samples.

"Having gone this far down the line, the chances of finding contaminated food is quite small," Noah told The Associated Press. "If (laboratory) evidence is missing, then epidemiological evidence can be quite compelling."

The farm near the northern German village of Bienenbuettel that has been blamed for the outbreak was shut down last Thursday and all of its produce recalled. Still, the experts said some tainted sprouts could still be around and people could still get infected with E. coli.

Also, since it has not yet be established why the sprouts were bad — whether the seeds had been contaminated or the farm's water was — the experts said it was possible that other farms could also be affected. No other farms have been shut down, however.

Germany has been the epicenter of the world's deadliest known E. coli outbreak. The Koch Institute raised the toll Friday to 31 dead — 30 in Germany and one in Sweden — with 2,988 people sickened, 759 of whom are suffering from a serious complication that can cause kidney failure. The World Health Organization says 97 others have fallen sick in 12 other European countries, as well as three in the United States.

The number of new E. coli cases has been dropping in recent days, but it was not clear whether the epidemic was waning or whether consumers were just successfully shunning tainted vegetables.

The sprouts were blamed Sunday for the outbreak, but authorities backpedaled the following day after lab tests came in negative and there was not yet enough epidemiological evidence. During the investigation, non-lethal E. coli was also found on cucumbers from Spain and beet sprouts from the Netherlands — prompting general fears about produce from the European Union.

Russia and Saudi Arabia had issued a blanket ban on vegetable imports from the EU, and EU farmers claimed to be losing up to (euro) 417 million ($611 million) a week as demand plummeted and ripe produce was left to rot. The EU pledged Wednesday it would offer farmers compensation of up to (euro) 210 million ($306 million) for the E. coli losses.

Andres Gongora, leader of the Spanish farm association COAG, hoped that confidence in Spanish produce would return but was still furious with German authorities.

"At this point, the German government has very little credibility when it comes to clarifying the source of this bacteria," Gongora said Friday from the southern city of Malaga, where COAG was giving away tons of fruit and vegetables to promote Spanish produce as safe. "You have to be careful because Germany has screwed up several times now."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea