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Bacteria scare

June 11, 2011

The worst of the E. coli outbreak may be over, says Germany's health minister. But despite confirming the source of the bacteria, the woes continue for many sick patients - and especially for European vegetable farmers.

Bean sprouts
The E. coli crisis has cost farmers hundreds of millionsImage: picture alliance/Arco Images GmbH

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr warned Saturday that the number of deaths from an E. coli outbreak may increase. His statement came even as German authorities lifted their warnings on fresh vegetables.

Bahr cautioned that "further deaths are not ruled out, as painful as that is."

He said, however, that he was hopeful the worst of the outbreak, which has claimed at least 31 lives in Germany and caused over 3,000 illnesses, was now over.

"The wave is gradually abating," Bahr was quoted Saturday as telling the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. "There is reason to hope the worst is now over."

German authorities announced Saturday that they located the source of the bacteria. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) confirmed test results announced on Friday that identified bean sprouts in the northern village of Bienenbüttel as carrying the virulent E. coli strain EHEC-0104.

Vegetable shelves at a German supermarket
Health officials have given the green light on vegetablesImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

"These results are an important step in the chain of evidence," said BfR director Andreas Hensel.

Officials investigating an organic farm in northern Germany said on Saturday they do not expect to take legal action against it for causing an E.coli outbreak.

"Everything we have looked into until now shows the farm was flawless," said Gert Hahne, spokesman for the consumer protection office of Lower Saxony state, where Bienenbüttel is located. "It is hygienic and followed all the regulations."

Help for farmers

Although the outbreak has been concentrated in northern Germany, farmers across Europe remain in a lurch, even after German authorities reversed their warnings against fresh vegetables.

European Union member states are expected to pass a 210 million euro ($303 million) aid package for vegetable farmers on Tuesday, according to European Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos, who added that the first payments could be made as early as July.

"I hope that the market recovers quickly," Ciolos told German daily Passauer Neue Presse, adding that he welcomed the all-clear sign. "This is a clear signal for the consumers, based on scientific expertise, that they can again eat and enjoy these products without concern."

A vegetable farmer in his field
The German Farmers' Federation says the EU aid money won't be enoughImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Growers of cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes are expected to receive up to 50 percent of their products' average market price during the month of June. Yet the head of the German Farmers' Federation, Gert Sonnleiter, was quick to call for an increase to the funds.

"Damages in the whole of the EU have reached between 500 million and 600 million euros," Sonnleiter told the daily Tagesspiegel, adding that German farmers alone had suffered a loss of 65 million euros.

Germany's Robert Koch Institute, home of the country's federal infectious disease laboratory, this week lifted its warnings against cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes, after originally pointing fingers Spanish cucumbers at the beginning of the two-week crisis.

Meanwhile, Russia on Friday said it would lift its blanket ban on European vegetable imports, although it did not say when.

Author: David Levitz (AFP, AP, dpa)

Editor: Sean Sinico