German E. coli outbreak traced to sprouts

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At Caminito’s Argentine deli in Berlin, the owner started offering rice instead of salad with his entrees and fretted over it.

“We eat pasta, not rice, in Argentina,” he said, asking whether the rice tasted OK. “The customers don’t want salad now.”

Scientists are moving swiftly to learn more about the toxin-producing E. coli. Dag Harmsen, a microbiologist at the Muenster University Hospital, which has been closely involved in the investigation, said the researchers are hoping to know enough about the strain within a week to be able to prevent more infections and better treat patients.

“We are pretty sure we can soon tell in much more detail why this strain is so aggressive and spreads so widely,” he said.

He explained that the toxic bug on the rampage in Germany is thought to be a hybrid of two strains.

Still, investigators have been on a trail of false leads in trying to find out how exactly the bacteria got into the food chain. The Robert Koch Institute was coerced to deny media reports that it suspected the source of the outbreak might have been a May 6-8 harbor festival in Hamburg that attracted 1.5 million visitors.

Now the institute’s investigators are looking closely at supplies delivered to the Kartoffelkeller restaurant in the northern German city of Lubeck. Seventeen diners fell ill after eating a meal of steak and salad there on May 13.

One of them, a 48-year-old woman, has died of HUS. The owner of the restaurant, Joachim Berger, told public broadcaster ZDF that his produce came from a wholesaler in the central food market in Hamburg.

Authorities thought they had traced the source to organic Spanish cucumbers sold there, but subsequent tests showed that the vegetables were not contaminated with the same strain of bacteria causing the illnesses.

That discovery was made too late for many Spanish farmers. With thousands of tons of produce left unsold, it is estimated that the mistake in Hamburg has cost Spanish growers an estimated $290 million a week.

The food scare has led to a series of trade restrictions on European produce. Russia and Qatar are among the countries that have banned the import of vegetables from the European Union.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin dismissed criticism from the EU that Moscows move is disproportionate.

“People really are dying because of eating these products,” he said. “We cannot let our people get poisoned.”

People across Europe were playing it safe.

“I ask where the vegetables come from when I make my procurements now,” said Jessica Eng, a vegetable vendor at the Saluhall market in Stockholm. “And I would not buy anything from Germany right now.”

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