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“They could miss an outbreak starting until people get quite sick with severe complications,” he said.

Hunter said German doctors probably only realized how big the outbreak was when the number of patients with kidney failure spiked in mid-May.

On Tuesday, the EU health chief warned Germany against issuing any more premature _ and inaccurate _ conclusions about the source of contaminated food. EU health chief John Dalli told the EU parliament in Strasbourg that information must be scientifically sound and foolproof before it becomes public.

“It is crucial that national authorities do not rush to give information on the source of infection that is not proven by bacteriological analysis, as this spreads unjustified fears (among) the population all over Europe and creates problems for our food producers,” Dalli said.

Tests are continuing on sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany, but have so far come back negative. Rodier said that doesn’t necessarily exonerate the vegetables.

“Just because tests are negative doesn’t mean you can rule them out,” he said. “The bacteria could have been in just one batch of contaminated food and by the time you collect specimens from the samples that are left, it could be gone.”

Hunter said the outbreak could have devastating consequences for consumers’ faith in food safety.

“The impression among many people may be that the German officials haven’t got a clue what they’re doing, even if that’s far from the case,” he said. “They just have not done a good job of explaining why their assessments keep changing and as a result, it may be a long time before many people eat cucumbers and sprouts again.”

In Luxembourg, major vegetable producers Spain, Italy and France angrily demanded compensation Tuesday for farmers blindsided by huge losses in the E. coli outbreak. In response, EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos promised more than euro150 million ($219 million) in aid.

European farmers say they are losing up to 417 million euros ($611 million) a week.

Germany’s national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, on Tuesday raised the number deaths to 24 _ 23 in Germany and one in Sweden _ and the number of infections in Germany to 2,325, including 642 patients with a rare complication that may lead to kidney failure. Ten other European countries and the United States have another 100 cases.

The institute said the number of new cases had declined _ a sign the epidemic might have reached its peak _ but added it was not certain whether that decrease will continue.

Hospitals in northern Germany were still being crushed by the demands of caring for so many E. coli patients.

A 41-year-old Hamburg lawyer was hospitalized for more than a week in a separate hospital ward for E. coli cases.

“When I got there, it wasn’t that full yet, but then more patients came every day,” she told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, speaking on condition of anonymity because she didn’t want to identify her family. Now cured, she remains quarantined at home with no physical contact to avoid infecting anyone.

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