The German E. coli outbreak that has now claimed 37 lives and damaged fresh produce markets across Europe finally seems to be abating; but the question of how the suspect sprouts became contaminated remains unanswered.
Investigators are looking closely at whether the problem originated with sprout seeds.
After 5 workers on an organic farm in Bienenbüttel, Lower Saxony were confirmed to have been infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli, health authorities have been trying to figure out whether they could have transferred the germ onto the sprouts or whether the sprouts made them ill.
While investigators said the possibility of human introduction of the E. coli pathogen into the sprouts at the farm can’t be ruled out, and that water and preceding suppliers are also possible sources, there is growing suspicion that the sprout seeds arrived at the farm already carrying the bacteria.
What health officials do know is that the 5 infected workers reported eating broccoli, garlic and fenugreek sprouts. Workers who had eaten alfalfa and spicy mix varieties of sprouts remained healthy, according to Der Spiegel.
On Monday, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) said a family in Lower Saxony became infected with enterohemmorhagic E. coli (EHEC) after eating home-sprouted seeds grown from a kit, suggesting that seed supplied to several sprout companies may have been contaminated.
What is the deadliest E. coli outbreak in history has now sickened 3,335, with 818 developing hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a life-threatening kidney complication.
Because the outbreak was linked to vegetables, more and more countries have been turning away from German produce.
Last week, Russia took the drastic step of banning all fresh produce imports from Germany. Monday, Taiwan said it would bar German sprouts from entering the country.
Mistrust from abroad and within the EU has cost vegetable producers dearly this season. At the height of the local growing season, sales have dipped drastically below their usual levels.
Approximately 5,900 tons of cucumbers, over 3,200 acres of lettuce and 3, 500 tons of tomatoes have had to be destroyed, reported Germany’s Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner Tuesday.
Given these damages, the European Union has increased the compensation it has agreed to give to European farmers from 150 million to 210 million euros, according to Neue Osnabrueker Zeitung. This brings the amount of reparations for farmers up to about 50 percent of profits lost, a “small change,” say Spanish agricultural organizations, according to Economics Newspaper.
As for the virulent effects of the disease, while the Commissioner of the European Union, John Dalli, said Monday that the problem is now, “under control,” health minister Daniel Bahr told Bild that, “More fatalities cannot be ruled out, painful as it is to say.”
Monday also brought with it a scare that sprouts might not in fact have been the definitive source of the outbreak, when enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) was found in lettuce imported from Bavaria, according to Der Spiegel. However, the E. coli strain on the lettuce was determined to be unrelated to the outbreak strain.
Nonetheless, the detection of dangerous, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli on vegetables throughout Europe, including Spanish cucumbers and Bavarian lettuce, has raised concern about the prevalence of pathogens on European produce.