The rate of new cases of E. coli slowed in Germany as officials struggled to pinpoint the cause of the world’s deadliest outbreak of the infection.
Initial tests from an organic farm near Uelzen, Germany, showed no traces of the bacteria that killed 22 people, authorities in Lower Saxony state said. Officials took 40 samples from the farm and 23 of them have come back negative, the state said in an e-mailed statement today. The rest of the samples are being investigated, according to the statement.
The findings may cast doubt on comments yesterday by Gert Lindemann, Lower Saxony’s agriculture minister, that sprouts from the farm played a role in the outbreak. The farm, Gaertnerhof Bienenbuettel, said in a statement it had informed customers and was “shocked and concerned” at being linked to the infection. The cause remains unknown, according to health officials in Hamburg, which the EU said is the “epicenter” of illnesses.
“We think it is coming from something people eat and are still searching for the source, which could be salad, cucumbers, sprouts or tomatoes,” said Rico Schmidt, a spokesman for Hamburg’s health department, in a telephone interview today. “We are looking into everything the infected people have eaten -- we visit their homes and take samples out of their fridges.”
The test results may not conflict with Lower Saxony’s warning about the farm because experience has shown that E. coli won’t be equally distributed among products at a contaminated site, said Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks, Hamburg’s senator for health, in a statement. E. coli is usually transmitted when feces, often from an animal source, are ingested.
Officials already have triggered one false alarm in the outbreak. Hamburg health authorities initially blamed Spanish cucumbers, causing outrage in the southern European nation after sales of the vegetable dried up. Spain will seek “100 percent compensation” from the EU for the damage caused to its vegetable producers, Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar said in an interview today with TVE.
Past outbreaks have shown the difficulties in pinpointing the cause. Three people died in California in 2006 from E. coli bacteria in bagged spinach, though officials never determined how the contamination occurred, according to a 2007 report from federal and state investigators.
Cases of illness in Hamburg and Lower Saxony have stabilized, officials said. The death toll was unchanged from yesterday, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. At least 2,333 people have fallen ill, the Stockholm-based agency said today. That’s an increase of 70 cases, down from yesterday when 430 new cases were reported.
“The information that is coming in to us shows that there is no spreading of the contamination, that it is contained and that the incidence of infection is being reduced on a daily basis,” John Dalli, the EU health commissioner, said at a news conference in Luxembourg today. “What we’re seeing is results of previous contaminations going through the incubation period.”
Only water and seeds are used to grow sprouts and no animal manure is used as fertilizer in the process, Klaus Verbeck, the owner of the farm in the town of Bienenbuettel, said in an interview with Neuen Osnabruecker Zeitung today. Black-and-white cows grazed today in a nearby field. Cattle are the main reservoir for E. coli.
Bienenbuettel is in Lower Saxony, about 70 kilometers (44 miles) from the city-state of Hamburg.
About 18 different sprouts grown by the company, including bean, broccoli and garlic, are under investigation, Lindemann said yesterday. The sprouts can’t be solely to blame for the outbreak, he added. The farm has supplied sprouts either directly or indirectly to places where authorities believe patients were sickened, and at least one person on the farm is infected, he said.
Pinpointing where and how the germ entered the food chain will enable authorities to control the outbreak, which the ECDC said caused 21 deaths in Germany and one in Sweden.
Ilse Aigner, German minister for consumer protection, said she’s upholding warnings against eating sprouts even after tests showed no evidence of the deadly enterohemorrhagic E. coli bacteria, known as EHEC. Consumers still shouldn’t eat salads, cucumbers and tomatoes from northern Germany, she said at a news conference in Berlin.
The test of the sprouts near Uelzen “are an important lead that needs to be pursued with all intensity though we must keep an eye on other investigation efforts,” Aigner said. Authorities “are working round the clock at federal, state and municipal level” to find the cause, she said.