BERLIN — After days of confusion, German authorities stated Friday that they had finally narrowed down the most likely cause of one of the world’s worst recorded E. coli infections to contaminated, home-grown bean-sprouts. But they also warned that new cases were still being reported and that key questions remained unanswered — including how pathogens came into contact with the sprouts and whether some of the contaminated produce is still in circulation.
At a news conference here, Reinhard Burger, the head of the country’s disease control agency, stated that all the tests on sprouts from the suspect source, a farm in Lower Saxony state, had proven negative, but that by studying the pattern of the infection, “it was possible to narrow down epidemiologically the highly probable cause of the outbreak of the illness to the consumption of sprouts.”
“It was the sprouts,” he declared.
The outbreak claimed at least 30 lives in Germany, unsettled the nation and threw European agriculture into disarray. The announcement of a likely cause went some way to assuring German consumers that at least some of the food earlier suspected of containing toxins — notably cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuces — was now officially declared safe for consumption. But many shop-keepers were furious with the authorities’ handling of the crisis.
“The whole thing is a huge scandal,” stated Riza Cetinkaya, 24, who works in her father’s grocery store in the Charlottenburg district where, she said, sales had dropped by up to 70 per cent. “People were very unsettled. Every day something difference was announced. Now I hear on the radio that it was the sprouts. But people were living buying less fruit. That is simply insane.”
As the outbreak spread after the first victims began sickening on May 1, German authorities incensed Spanish growers by blaming the outbreak on cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce imported from Spain.
On Friday, German health officials stated consumers should still avoid the consumption of raw sprouts — a popular addition to salads and ready-made sandwiches sold in supermarkets and elsewhere.
“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,” Mr. Burger said.
Mr. Burger stated investigators had analyzed 112 people, 19 of whom had been infected with E. coli during a group visit to a single restaurant, and had analyzed recipes for the food they had eaten, spoken to the chefs who prepared it and even analyzed photographs they had taken of one another with their choice of food on the table.
The aim was “to discover exactly how each meal prepared, which ingredients went into it,” he said. The result was that customers who ate sprouts were found to be nearly nine times more likely to be infected than other diners. It was this trail — from hospital beds to restaurants — that led health inspectors back along the food chain to an organic farm at Bienenbüttel south-east of Hamburg, where the sprouts originated.
On Friday, state authorities in Lower Saxony stated they had sealed off the farm and ordered its operators to suspend sales of any other products. Gert Lindemann, the state agriculture minister, stated the owners of the farm had already pledged not to sell any produce after their facility came under suspicion last Sunday.
The outbreak has been particularly virulent because, the German authorities say, it has led to a potentially lethal complication — known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or H.U.S. — that causes kidney failure and neurological damage.
In a separate statement on its Web site on Friday, the Robert Koch Institute stated the number of new cases of E. coli being reported to it was “clearly lower” than when the outbreak peaked in late May. The death toll in Germany now stood at 30, which included 21 people who had died of the H.U.S. complication. Overall, 2,988 people had been infected, 759 of them with H.U.S.
In addition to the 30 fatal cases in Germany, a further death was reported in Sweden.
Friday’s announcement followed remarks late Thursday by the federal health minister, Daniel Bahr, who stated there was “cause for justifiable optimism” that the outbreak was close to ending.
The outbreak spread alarm across Europe, with Spanish farmers demanding compensation after demand for their crops plummeted and farmers in Germany and other European countries saying the market for cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes was so low that they were forced to dump tons of unsold produce.
In response to the spread of E. coli, Russia banned all imports of vegetables from Europe, causing an outcry among European farmers that one of its biggest markets had been closed down.
Russia promised Friday to lift its blanket ban on European vegetables once the European Union provides documented proof of their safety, according to news reports from Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga River, where President Dmitri A. Medvedev met with senior European Union leaders.
“We are ready to resume the shipments under guarantees of the European Union authorities,” Mr. Medvedev was quoted as telling a news conference.
Victor Homola and Stefan Pauly contributed reporting.
source : feeds.nytimes.com
Submited at Friday, June 10th, 2011 at 4:00 pm on Uncategorized by ethan
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