Confirmation German bean sprouts were E.coli source


GERMAN AUTHORITIES have confirmed that domestically grown bean sprouts were the most likely source of the E.coli epidemic that has killed 30 people.

Lifting a warning about consuming cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes, authorities said an organic farm in northern Germany was the probable origin of the virulent bacterial infection that has left nearly 3,000 ill in 23 countries.

The announcement confirms an earlier warning about bean sprouts even though no trace has yet been found of contamination at the farm in the northern village of Bienenbüttel, near Hamburg.

“It’s the sprouts,” said Reinhard Burger, head of the Robert Koch Institute for disease control and prevention. “It was possible to narrow down epidemiologically the cause of the outbreak of the illness to the consumption of sprouts.” After two weeks of false leads, mixed messages and hasty retreats, it remains to be seen whether yesterday’s announcement will be enough for nervous and confused German consumers.

After incorrectly blaming Spanish cucumbers early last week, attention turned to bean sprouts. The confusion was heightened when sprout tests showed no trace of contamination. Though their search continues, investigators say it is unlikely they will find concrete evidence of contamination because of the two-week lapse between infection and the outbreak of the E.coli-related illness.

Without medical confirmation, authorities admit they can never be 100 per cent sure they located the source. But two weeks of quizzing patients about recent eating habits has left them satisfied of an “incriminating chain of evidence” leading to the farm’s bean sprouts.

That investigation was headed by Germany’s Risk Assessment Agency chief Andreas Hensel. He said the investigation included visits to restaurants frequented by E.coli-infected patients: “We studied menus, the ingredients, looked at bills and took pictures of different meals to show to those who had fallen ill.”

A preliminary report shows Bienenbüttel sprouts found their way into 26 of the 55 restaurants frequented by those who became ill. However, only six patients remember eating sprouts.

“It was like a crime thriller where you have to find the bad guy,” said Helmut Tschiersky-Schöneburg of the federal consumer protection agency.

The sprout farm remained closed yesterday as officials warned other farms could be contaminated. They hope they can clarify whether the sprouts were contaminated by tainted water, humans or another source. One of the farm’s employees is reportedly ill with an E.coli infection, while two others have had unexplained diarrhoea. Yesterday’s announcement ends a tense two weeks for German authorities. They were accused of unsettling consumers with a chaotic investigation.

German hospitals continue to struggle to treat those infected by the bacteria, a mutant E.coli strain. Nearly 800 patients are suffering from complications including nervous system damage and kidney failure, likely to require transplants on an unprecedented scale.