June 10 (Bloomberg) -- Germany lifted a warning against eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce after concluding tainted sprouts caused an E. coli infection that has killed 31 people, as the first direct link to the illness was found.
Based on interviews with restaurant patrons and cooks and a review of food deliveries, there’s a “high probability” sprouts were the cause, Reinhard Burger, head of the Robert Koch Institute, said in Berlin today. The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia said separately that E. coli bacteria of the aggressive O104 strain tied to the outbreak were detected for the first time on sprouts from a northern German farm.
“There is no signal any more that tomatoes, cucumbers and salad are responsible for the outbreak in North Germany,” Andreas Hensel, head of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, said at a news conference. “Now these products are not suspicious anymore. It’s healthy to eat them.”
Demand slumped for vegetables across the European Union after health officials mistakenly blamed Spanish cucumbers as sources of the outbreak. Vegetable growers in the 27-nation bloc are losing as much as 400 million euros ($580 million) a week from a drop in demand related to the outbreak, Brussels-based farm lobby Copa-Cogeca said this week.
EU Farmers’ Aid
EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos proposed on June 8 that producers be given 210 million euros in support, up from an initial plan for 150 million euros. As much as 80 percent of vegetables are being destroyed in some areas because there is no market, according to Copa-Cogeca.
The outbreak, which officials have said was centered in the northern German city of Hamburg, has sickened at least 3,082 people since May 2, with the number of deaths rising to 31 from the 27 reported as of yesterday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said today.
Health officials in the state of Lower Saxony on June 5 identified organic sprouts from a farm near Uelzen, Germany, as a possible source. Produce from the property, Gaertnerhof Bienenbuettel, was recalled and its customers were informed.
North Rhine-Westphalia investigators found the bacteria in an opened package of sprouts in the garbage of a home in the Rhein-Sieg area, where two of the household’s three family members had eaten the vegetables and fallen ill with E. coli in the middle of May, the state Environment, Agriculture and Consumer-Protection Ministry said.
‘First’ Illness Link
“The sprouts originate, based on current knowledge, from the business in Bienenbuettel in Lower Saxony,” the Dusseldorf-based ministry said in a statement. “That means that for the first time, an unbroken link between sprouts infected with O104 from the business in Bienenbuettel and people who have fallen ill have been found.”
The farm, which has grown sprouts for 25 years, is located about 35 miles (56 kilometers) southeast of Hamburg. Its products include radish, red-cabbage, alfalfa, broccoli, onion and garlic sprouts, as well as sunflower seedlings, according to information on its website. Gaertnerhof has about 18 employees.
The warning against eating sprouts applies to all 18 varieties that the farm grows, Natascha Manski, a state spokeswoman in Hanover, Lower Saxony’s capital, said today in a phone interview.
While the number of new E. coli cases is declining, the outbreak isn’t over yet, the Koch Institute’s Burger said at the Berlin news conference. Contaminated seeds may have caused the outbreak, he said.
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