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Germany wrestles with deadly E. coli outbreak

More than 1,000 people in Germany have been sickened by contaminated food and at least 16 have died. Initial blame was cast on Spain then withdrawn, raising diplomatic tensions.

June 02, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Vegetable farmer Rudolf Behr stands in his field of lettuce near Hamburg, Germany, as a tractor destroys the crop. An E.Coli scare has prompted German officials to warn its citizens not to eat raw cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes until the outbreak's source is discovered.
Vegetable farmer Rudolf Behr stands in his field of lettuce near Hamburg,… (Reuters )

Reporting from London — Germany scrambled Wednesday to pinpoint the source of a deadly outbreak of food-borne bacterial infections that has killed at least 16 people, sickened hundreds more and sparked a diplomatic squabble with Spain.

The mass outbreak of E. coli infections is the worst of its kind in recent memory in Germany. Since the beginning of May, more than 1,000 residents have fallen ill from contaminated food, including 470 suffering from a more virulent and potentially life-threatening reaction known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure, strokes and seizures.

Normally, Germany records only about 50 to 60 cases of the syndrome a year.

In addition, a few dozen infections have been reported in Sweden, Denmark, Austria and other European countries, with one person dead. Almost all the victims had recently been in northern Germany, officials said.

German health authorities trace the outbreak to tainted lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes and have warned residents, especially in the north, not to eat any of those vegetables raw. The E. coli bacteria are often spread through improper handling of food products, particularly those fertilized with manure.

However, researchers have been stymied in their attempts to pinpoint the contamination's source. Ilse Aigner, the nation's food and agriculture minister, told German television Wednesday that "hundreds of tests" had already been conducted but that more were needed to track "the delivery path" of the suspect vegetables.

German officials originally focused on cucumbers shipped from Spain as the culprit. Tests determined that some were, in fact, contaminated with E. coli. But Germany now acknowledges that a different strain of the bacterium from the one found is responsible for the outbreak.

The misidentification, and a subsequent ban on imports of Spanish produce, triggered an angry backlash in Spain, where nightly news broadcasts have shown grim-faced farmers watching their profits go up in smoke as they dump tons of cucumbers. Several other countries have blocked Spanish produce as a result of Germany's erroneous announcement.

On Wednesday, First Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba of Spain said Madrid was contemplating legal action against German officials over commercial losses estimated at nearly $300 million.

E. coli is a common bacterium found in, among other places, the human digestive tract. Most forms are relatively harmless.

The current outbreak is the result of a dangerous strain of so-called enterohemorrhagic E. coli. While infections usually affect children and the elderly most severely, for some reason adult women make up the large majority of those in Germany who have come down with the serious complications of hemolytic uremic syndrome.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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