German E.coli hunt refocused on cucumbers


IT’S THE cucumbers again. A week after discounting Spanish cucumbers as the source of Germany’s E.coli epidemic, authorities have isolated a contaminated cucumber in the household waste of an infected family.

As the month-long epidemic rolls on, German authorities admitted for the first time yesterday their response to the epidemic had been unsatisfactory.

At an emergency meeting yesterday in Berlin, the federal health minister said that after 25 fatalities, the epidemic had peaked, with the number of new cases decreasing.

Authorities in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt said yesterday they had identified the virulent E.coli strain O104:H4 on scraps of food discarded by a family from the eastern city of Magdeburg.

Three family members have been sick: the parents have been mildly ill with a stomach bug and diarrhoea, while their daughter has been taken to hospital.

She is suffering from haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS), which can result in damage to kidneys and the nervous system.

Authorities said it was first time the bacterium had been confirmed on food since the beginning of the epidemic.

They were unsure last night whether the cucumber itself was contaminated or whether the source was other vegetables in the rubbish bin.

The continuing uncertainty has prompted growing criticism in Germany and abroad.

Spanish Europe minister Diego López Garrido is due in Berlin today to read German authorities the riot act after an incorrect warning against eating Spanish cucumbers cost farmers there millions of euros in lost sales.

Late last week, authorities announced that a chain of evidence led to a home-grown beansprout producer near Hamburg. Suspicions that this is the source of the outbreak have not yet been confirmed despite dozens of clinical tests on sprout samples.

Despite the negative test results, authorities insist there is a connection between the E.coli outbreak and Gärtnerhof, the organic vegetable farm in Bienenbüttel, near Hamburg.

An employee of the company has been infected with the E.coli variant, while two other employees have diarrhoea.

Federal agriculture minister Ilse Aigner said yesterday eight separate groups of E.coli victims have been linked to Gärtnerhof products.

So far, about 2,700 people have been infected with the mutant E.coli strain, nearly a quarter of whom are suffering from HUS.

Federal health minister Daniel Bahr said yesterday the number of new infections was “falling continuously”.

“I cannot give the all-clear yet, but an analysis of the numbers gives reason for hope,” said Mr Bahr. “Unfortunately this means there will still be new infections and, sadly, one has to anticipate further deaths.”

He conceded yesterday that the decentralised nature of Germany’s health and disease prevention authorities had been problematic.

German health matters are a competence of the 16 federal states while serious disease control is a federal matter. Investigating health scares is a shared competence. Critics have accused state and federal authorities of not communicating or sharing information with each other.

“[We] agree that, after these events, a careful evaluation is needed of co-operation . . . between the various health and consumer protection ministries at federal and state level,” said Mr Bahr.