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Questions remain about E. coli

Germans can’t confirm sprout link to outbreak

By Alan Cowell
New York Times / June 11, 2011

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BERLIN — After days of confusion, German authorities said yesterday that they had concluded that contaminated sprouts from an organic farm in the country’s north were the most likely cause of one of the world’s worst outbreaks of E. coli.

Officials acknowledged, however, that laboratory tests to confirm the findings had produced only negative results and that questions remained about how the sprouts had been contaminated in the first place.

To reach their conclusion, health officials said they relied on an epidemiological study of the pattern of infection among patients, tracking the outbreak along the food chain from hospital beds to restaurants and then back to the farm, southeast of Hamburg, at Bienenbuettel.

Hours after the announcement in Berlin, officials in a different region, North Rhine-Westphalia, said they had, for the first time, identified the pathogens thought to be causing the outbreak in an open package of bean sprouts from the same farm.

Johannes Remmel, the state consumer protection minister, said the discovery — in a garbage can at the home of two infected patients in Cologne — meant that it was “becoming increasingly more likely that bean sprouts’’ from the farm had caused the outbreak.

Federal officials cautioned that the findings still needed to be confirmed.

Yesterday’s announcement seemed intended to assure Germans that foods suspected earlier of containing toxins — cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce — were safe to eat. But many shopkeepers remained angry over the handling of the crisis.

“The whole thing is a big scandal,’’ said Riza Cetinkaya, 24, who works in her father’s grocery store in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, where, she said, sales had dropped about 70 percent.

“People were very unsettled. Every day something different was announced,’’ Cetinkaya said. “Now I hear on the radio that it was the sprouts. But people were even buying less fruit. That is simply insane.’’

The outbreak has killed at least 30 people in Germany, unsettled the nation, and thrown European agriculture into disarray. Although authorities have made “decisive progress,’’ the outbreak “is not yet over,’’ said Reinhard Burger, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, the country’s disease control agency, because new cases will still be reported.

At a news conference in Berlin, Burger said the institute’s scientists did not yet know how pathogens came into contact with the sprouts or whether some of the contaminated produce was still in circulation.

As the outbreak spread, German authorities placed blame on cucumbers, tomatoes, or lettuce imported from Spain and urged people, particularly in northern Germany, which seems to be the epicenter of the outbreak, to avoid the products.

Yesterday, German health officials declared cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce to be safe, but said consumers should still avoid the consumption of raw sprouts, a popular addition to salads and ready-made sandwiches.

“It is possible that the source of the infection has now been exhausted, that is to say, that the food has either been eaten or thrown away,’’ Burger said.

By studying the pattern of the infection as it spread, he said, “it was possible to narrow down epidemiologically the highly probable cause of the outbreak of the illness to the consumption of sprouts.’’

Yesterday, state authorities in Lower Saxony said they had sealed off the farm and ordered its operators to suspend sales of any other products. .

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