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.

  • It is important to understand the facts – and spread the word – about organic and food safety.
    Sprouts—regardless of their source—have been identified by FDA as requiring special food safety protocols because of the potential for pathogen growth during the sprouting process. Contaminated seed is the likely source for most reported sprout-associated outbreaks.
    All food, whether conventionally or organically produced, is susceptible to E. coli. That is why strong food safety regulations and practices are critical. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as recently as last week, and the Centers for Disease Control acknowledge there is no evidence to indicate that organic products are more likely to be contaminated by E. coli.
    In the United States, organic farmers and processors have tools in their tool kits that place organic agriculture at no disadvantage in terms of food safety.
    In fact, organic producers take a much broader view of “food safety,” by prohibiting harmful practices such as using toxic and persistent pesticides that have been linked to harming children’s cognitive development, the application of sewage sludge on the land, the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics that have been linked to breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria including virulent strains of E. coli, and the use synthetic growth hormones that have questionable effects on humans.

  • Doc Mudd

    “In the United States, organic farmers and processors have tools in their tool kits that place organic agriculture at no disadvantage in terms of food safety…In fact, organic producers take a much broader view of ‘food safety’…”
    Yeah, well organic fanatics need to pull their heads out of the organic fertlizer and focus on these rumored “tools in their tool kits”. Just clean up your act and keep the turds separate from the overpriced food you’re selling us, if you would.
    As for taking a “broader view of food safety”, don’t bother with that transparent distraction – we’re not fooled by it. Stick to the real, live food safety issues.
    Reserve your monotonous industry bashing and technophobia for your marketing. None of that has anything to do with food safety, nothing whatsoever.
    Organic agriculture, with its copious manure and primitive backward attitudes, is a series of serious food poisoning outbreaks no longer waiting to happen – they have begun and are of historic proportions.

  • ICBM

    Wheres the poor old organic-bashing Muddian to turn?
    He’s troubled by manure use in agriculture — yet organic is the only certification label that absolutely prohibits the use of fresh manure in growing food — while Industrial Ag has no such prohibitions and uses fresh manure any time they want. As we’ve seen in countless Big Ag outbreaks, this certainly is a serious and risky food safety issue.
    The list of USDA-sanctioned unsafe food production practices (like the dirty dozen toxic pesticdes on foods) goes on and on, however. Somehow Big Ag has been able to limit the purview of food safety regulations to just microbial contamination.
    There’s the feeding of taxpayer-subsidized ethanol industry waste (ie. “distiller’s grains”) as a MAJOR livestock feed that is proven to create high reservoirs and constant shedding of virulent E.coli into our food-producing environment. Big Ag investors have even built most of their ethanol plants next to cattle feedlot operations so they’d have a ready market for their waste products — our food supply.
    Mudd eschews the fresh food from Farmers Markets but look what’s in store for him at the supermarket. Organic is the only label that prohibits the use of municipal sewage sludge (aka, biosolids) on fruits and vegetables and farm crops with all their industrial waste stream contaminants and excreted pharmaceuticals.
    Also, over 70% of the food on supermarket shelves contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are completely unlabeled even though they have never been independently safety-tested. Organic prohibits the use of GMOs.
    And Big Beef has so far been able to limit the “adulterated” designation of to E.coli 0157:H7 despite outbreaks in the US and the tragedy in Germany. They’e also been able to keep the sub-therepeutic use of antibiotics in the CAFO-livestock industry that is causing wide-scsle resistance to the very antibiotics we need as defense against these newly-evolved E.coli strains.And yes, organic prohibits the use of antibiotics in livestock too.

  • Doc Mudd

    Another off-topic bashing rant about “Industrial Ag” aka “Big Ag” (appropriately capitalized out of respect, no doubt). Managed to work in most of the gleefully maligned scarewords, too; CAFO, sludge, GMO, pesticide, ethanol industry waste, antibiotics, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah…
    But no mention of the German organic food poisoning victims, no mention of organic sprouts or food safety, at all. No acknowledgment of real, proven threats to the public health. Just a desperate tirade over imagined dangers, a tiresome rehash of the organic cult’s dopey scaremongering talking points. Who cares, Gilman? Why waste our time with your ridiculous phobias and your off-topic hand-wringing?
    Drop the make-believe and get a grip, man; the German outbreak is real – it really happened; sickening over 3000, some 800 critcally ill with HUS, about 100 now destined for kidney transplants and 37 dead, including a 2 year old child – all from eating organic sprouts. None of that was influenced by CAFOS or GMOs or any of your other imaginary boogiemen, Gilman. Geez, just get a grip on reality, man. It will happen again and again under organic standards if nothing changes.
    Pretty damned cheesy in the face of such a human tragedy for organic pitchmen to be at business-as-usual, shamelessly hawking their product with their standard bashing, poisoning-the-well approach to peddling their grubby abstraction of “healthiness”. A crass snakeoil flim-flam. Who’s surprised?

  • Because many past food poisoning cases have been caused by E.col 0157:H7, which is found primarily in the guts of ruminants, especially grain-fed ruminants, many commentators about the recent German E.coli outbreak have falsely assumed that the world’s worst E.coli epidemic, originating in northwest Germany, is also linked to CAFOs and animal manure. Not so. The particular E.coli strain that caused this latest outbreak is not found in animal guts or animal manure, but in humans, i.e.human feces.
    Might there be a connection with fertilizing food crops with human waste –biosolids/sewage sludge–a practice legal in Germany and the US and the recent outbreak? surely this is a legitimate question. Perhaps the time has come to phase out the risky practice of fertilizing food crops with sludge. Other European countries and some US communities have already done so.
    Caroline Snyder Ph.D.