Dutch find different E. coli, pull beet sprouts

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AMSTERDAM — Dutch authorities recalled red beet sprouts from three countries Thursday after samples were found to be contaminated with a strain of E. coli bacteria that was apparently less dangerous than the one causing Europe’s deadly E. coli crisis.

The Dutch Food Safety Authority said laboratories were still trying to identify the Dutch strain, but there have been no immediate reports of serious illness from it.

But the agency said it was definitely not the same E. coli strain that has killed 27 people, sickened 2,900 others and left hundreds with serious complications, most of them in Germany. The cause of that outbreak, which began May 2, has so far eluded German authorities.

Only one grower, a company called Hamu, was found with contaminated beets, and other produce grown on its farms were cleared of suspicion, said Esther Filon, a spokeswoman for the Dutch regulation agency.

“It’s not the same as in Germany. You can become ill, but as far as we know at this moment, it is not lethal,” she told the Associated Press.

She said the authorities were trying to trace all shipments from the grower.

The agency said Hamu, based in the town of Kerkdriel 44 miles (70 kilometers) southeast of Amsterdam, had exported beet sprouts to Belgium as well as selling them on the Dutch and German markets.

There are hundreds of E. coli bacteria strains in nature, but only a few are deadly to humans and the bacteria is more commonly known as a source of food poisoning or severe stomach problems.

People naturally carry several harmless E. coli strains in their intestines and the bacteria is also widely found in cows, sheep and other mammals. Strains which are harmless to animals can sometimes be lethal for humans. Experts worry about E. coli’s constant evolution, which may result in dangerous mutations for humans.

The European Union informed the Netherlands late Wednesday that contaminated beet sprouts had been found in Germany, and tests in the Netherlands confirmed it.

In Berlin, the Robert Koch Institute said one more person died and 160 more were sickened in the E. coli outbreak but the rate of new illnesses was declining. It said 2,808 people have been sickened in Germany, 722 of whom are suffering from a serious complication that can cause kidney failure.

The World Health Organization says 97 others have fallen sick in 12 other European countries, as well as three in the United States.

The Koch institute says new cases being reported have been dropping for several days but cautioned that could be due to the fact that consumers are following the advice of health officials and staying away from cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and vegetable sprouts — all of which are being investigated as possible carriers of the E. coli.

European Union farmers say that since the warning went out, they have been losing up to €417 million ($611 million) a week as ripe produce rots in fields and warehouses.

On Wednesday, the EU said it would offer farmers compensation of up to €210 million ($306 million) for the E. coli losses, though a final decision will not be made until next week.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have issued a blanket ban on vegetable imports from the European Union.

Spanish farmers have been among the hardest hit, after authorities in Hamburg issued an early warning that Spanish cucumbers could be the source of the E. coli. Further tests showed that while the Spanish vegetables did carry E. coli, it was not the strain behind the outbreak.

In Berlin on Thursday, Spain’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Diego Lopez Garrido said the compensation being offered so far by the EU is not enough.

He also said both Spain and Germany believe the Russian ban on EU vegetables is “inappropriate.” Russia is a huge market for EU produce.

David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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