German-grown beansprouts could be the source of the deadly E.coli outbreak that has killed 22 people, made more than 2,000 ill and struck fear into consumers across Europe, officials said on Sunday.
The Lower Saxony state agriculture minister, Gert Lindemann, said at a news conference investigators had traced the rare, highly toxic strain of the bacteria to a farm in the town of Bienenbuettel, 70 km (40 miles) south of Hamburg.
Coming after three weeks of mysterious deaths and widespread consumer fears linked to the rare strain of E.coli, Lindemann said there appeared to be clear links between vegetables from the farm and food eaten by some victims.
“We’ve got a really hot lead,” Lindemann said of the scare, which has strained relations in the European Union and led Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to say he would not “poison” Russians by lifting an embargo of EU fruit and vegetable imports.
As well as beansprouts, Lindemann said alfalfa sprouts, mung bean sprouts, radish sprouts and arugula sprouts from the farm could be connected to the outbreak. Spanish farmers say lost sales have cost them €200 million [$233 million] a week, after a German official said Spanish cucumbers might have been the source. The crisis could put 70,000 people out of work in Spain, which already has the highest unemployment in the EU.
Lindemann said the farm in Bienenbuettel had been shut down, its produce recalled and further test results were expected on Monday. He urged consumers in northern Germany to refrain from eating all types of beansprouts.
Officials said, however, they were not sure if the farm was the only source. Lindemann said it was possible the contaminated produce had found its way into a variety of foods.
“There was a very clear trail (to the farm) as the source of the infection,” Lindemann said. “It is the most convincing … source for the E.coli illnesses. This is for us the most plausible cause of the illness.”
Authorities have for weeks been racing to track the source of the pathogen, which has infected people in 12 countries — all of whom had been travelling in northern Germany. Many of those infected have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly complication attacking the kidneys.
The rare strain of E.coli has the ability to stick to intestinal walls where it pumps out toxins, sometimes causing severe bloody diarrhea and kidney problems. Some patients have needed intensive care, including dialysis.
German officials said the produce from the farm was delivered to restaurants and food operations in five northern states: Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Hesse and Lower Saxony.
Health facilities in Germany’s second city, Hamburg, are struggling to cope with the flood of E.coli victims, Health Minister Daniel Bahr said.
Hospitals in the northern port of Hamburg, epicenter of the outbreak that began three weeks ago, have been moving out patients with less serious illnesses to handle the surge of people stricken by the rare strain of bacteria.
“We’re facing a tense situation with patient care,” Bahr said. He added hospitals outside Hamburg could be used to make up for “insufficient capacity” in Germany’s second largest city.
At a news conference with Bahr in Hamburg, state health minister Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks said local officials were scrambling to relieve a looming shortage of doctors.
“We want to discuss with doctors about whether those who recently retired can be reactivated,” she said, adding that medical staff in Hamburg were battling exhaustion.
On Saturday officials identified a restaurant in the northern port of Luebeck as a possible place where the bug had been passed to humans, saying at least 17 people infected with E.coli had eaten there and one later died from complications.
But the proprietor of the German meat-and-potatoes restaurant told Reuters his kitchen had tested negative for the deadly E.coli strain and none of his staff had fallen ill.
(Additional reporting by Brian Rohan; writing by Erik Kirschbaum and Eric Kelsey; editing by Andrew Roche)
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