E. coli outbreak linked to bean sprouts
Managing director of farm says no fertilizers are used to produce his bean sprouts and that there are no animals on his organic farm.
Mon, Jun 06, 2011 at 08:57 AM
SPROUTS: The head of a German farm facing an inquiry over a deadly E.coli outbreak was quoted on Monday as saying he could not understand accusations that bean sprouts grown at his farm could be to blame. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
BIENENBUETTEL, Germany - The head of a German farm facing an inquiry over a deadly E.coli outbreak was quoted on Monday as saying he could not understand accusations that bean sprouts grown at his farm could be to blame.
Klaus Verbeck, managing director of the "Gaertnerhof Bienenbuettel," told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung that no fertilizers are used to produce his bean sprouts and that there are no animals on his organic farm.
German officials said on Sunday his bean sprouts could be behind an E.coli outbreak that has killed 22 and made more than 2,200 people ill across Europe. The farm has been shut, produce recalled and further test results are due on Monday.
"I can't understand how the processes we have here and the accusations could possibly fit together," Verbeck told the paper. "The salad sprouts are grown only from seeds and water, and they aren't fertilized at all. There aren't any animal fertilizers used in other areas on the farm either."
Neither Verbeck, himself a vegetarian, nor anyone else from the farm would talk on Monday to journalists and television crews, including Reuters, outside his farm in the rural town of 6,600 that is located about 40 miles south of Hamburg.
German officials, under intense pressure to identify the source of the E.coli outbreak, have warned consumers for weeks to avoid tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, and at one stage said Spanish cucumbers might be the source of the outbreak. The rare E.coli strain has killed 21 Germans and one Swede.
Two uniformed security guards were patrolling behind the closed driveway gate to the farm located in idyllic countryside.
One neighbor, Sibylle Lange, said she knows Verbeck well and that he has been in organic farming for many years.
"These are very serious, hardworking people who were very early producers of organic products," Lange, a 45-year-old mother of two, told Reuters.
"They've been working here for some 30 years. It's a high-quality product. I've eaten all sorts of vegetables from here — bean sprouts included — and they taste delicious. I can't imagine the source could come from here. The whole thing has deeply affected us in the neighborhood and our friends."
'Really hot lead'
The Lower Saxony state agriculture minister, Gert Lindemann, said on Sunday evening investigators had traced the rare, highly toxic strain of the bacteria to a farm in the Uelzen region, later identified in the media as in Bienenbuettel.
Lindemann, speaking after three weeks of mysterious deaths and widespread consumer fears linked to the strain of E.coli, 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, reporting on the investigation into a health scare that has strained ties between EU members Spain and Germany and led Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to say he would not "poison" Russians by lifting an embargo on EU fruit and vegetable imports.
Lindemann said that not only bean sprouts, but also alfalfa sprouts, mung bean sprouts, radish sprouts and arugula sprouts from the farm might be connected to the outbreak. Raw sprouts are popular among Germans and are often mixed in salads or added to sandwiches.
The minister urged consumers in northern Germany to refrain from eating all types of bean sprouts.
German Health Minister Daniel Bahr told German television network ARD: "We've got clear indications that the company in the Uelzen region is evidently the source of the infection but we've got to wait for confirmation from laboratory tests."
Spanish farmers say lost sales have cost them 200 million euros a week, and Spanish officials said they might claim compensation. The crisis could put 70,000 people out of work in Spain, which already has the highest unemployment in the EU.
In Germany, a leading microbiologist told ARD TV that sprouts were a prime suspect from the start.
"Sprouts were one of the usual suspects from the very start and could have been stopped at the beginning," said Alexander Kekule from the University of Halle-Wittenberg. He said sprouts find their way into all kinds of food, are distributed around Germany and trigger an infection over a longer time frame.
In Japan, at least 11 people died in 1996 in an outbreak linked to contaminated radish sprouts.
Authorities have been racing to track the source of the disease, which has infected people in 12 countries — all of whom had been traveling in northern Germany. Many of those infected have developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome, a potentially deadly complication attacking the kidneys.
The rare strain of E.coli can 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.
On Saturday, officials identified a restaurant in the northern port of Luebeck as a place where the bug might have been passed to humans, saying at least 17 people infected with E.coli had eaten there and one later died from complications.
But the owner of the 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.
(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum, editing by Peter Millership)
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