Europe lifts cucumber warning


The European Commission has lifted its warning over Spanish cucumbers suspected of causing an E. coli outbreak that has killed 16 people.

The outbreak, centred on the north German city of Hamburg, has made more than 1,500 people ill in eight European countries, and led to an international row over the source of the contamination.

A statement issued tonight by the European Commission said tests conducted by "competent authorities" in Germany and Spain on cucumber samples showed that the Spanish vegetable is not responsible for the Shiga toxin-producing E.coli outbreak.

German health officials said today there had been a dramatic increase in the number of people infected in the outbreak.

The German disease control agency the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported 65 new E.coli cases today, a quarter of them involving the hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication of a type of E.coli known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).

European Union officials said three cases had also been reported in the United States, adding that most infections reported outside Germany involved German nationals or people who had recently travelled to the country.

The RKI figures contradicted remarks by European Union Health Commissioner John Dalli, who said the number of new cases appeared to be in decline.

"According to the latest information we have available from Germany, it appears that the outbreak is on the decline. Fewer people have been hospitalised over the past couple of days than before," Mr Dalli told journalists in Brussels.

"Intensive work is taking place to pinpoint the source of contamination ... I urge member states and in particular Germany to increase their efforts in this direction," he added.

German authorities initially identified cucumbers imported from Spain as the likely source of the outbreak. But they admitted yesterday that further tests on the cucumbers showed that, while contaminated, they did not carry the dangerous bacteria strain responsible for the deaths.

Spain said today it was considering legal action. Spanish farmers say lost sales resulting from the crisis are costing them €200 million a week, and could put 70,000 people out of work in a country which already has the highest unemployment rate in the EU.

"We do not rule out taking action against authorities which have cast doubt on the quality of our produce, so action may be taken against the authorities, in this case, of Hamburg," said Spain’s deputy prime minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba.

Mr Dalli said he was looking at what the European Commission could do about the impact on producers.

"We are very sensitive to the impact that this crisis is already having on farmers, in particular vegetable producers." It would be disproportionate to ban any single product because the source of the outbreak is not known, he added.

Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at Britain's University of East Anglia, said he was not surprised by the German finding that cucumbers were not to blame.

"Cucumbers are not normally implicated in food poisoning outbreaks. They are so easy to clean for a start, and bacteria are less likely to be able to find a protected spot," he said. "On the other hand, salads are a regular cause of outbreaks of food borne diseases including STEC, like this one, and salmonella. Outbreaks associated with consumption of salads are quite common on both sides of the Atlantic.”