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Toxic E. Coli Outbreak in Europe Baffles Officials, Casts Doubt on Produce

BY Larisa Epatko  June 2, 2011 at 2:54 PM EST

Bin of cucumbers for sale in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Joern Pollex/Getty Images

As Germany grapples with an E. coli outbreak — for which health officials have yet to find a source — many Germans are tossing aside their salads and vegetable growers are starting to feel the pinch.

An outbreak of what the World Health Organization called a virulent new strain of E. coli bacteria has sickened an estimated 1,500 people and killed 18 people, mostly in Germany.

The new strain, known as O104:H4, triggers bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain, according to the WHO, and can lead to haemolytic uraemic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure.

GlobalPost correspondent David Wroe told us by phone from Berlin that the outbreak has people on edge. “There are always voices that say … more people die on the roads everyday than are going to die from this. But in fact the people who are saying that aren’t buying cucumbers either,” he said.

“People expect a certain amount of risk when they get into a car, but they don’t expect to die from eating a cucumber. It’s definitely got people frightened and unsettled.”

In addition, since health officials are still unable to pinpoint a source of the aggressive E. coli strain some 10 days later, people are feeling frustrated and bewildered, said Wroe.

Photo of the toxin-producing EHEC bacteria provided by the Helmholtz Center for Research on Infectious Diseases

Cucumbers from Spain were identified as the culprit early on, but were later eliminated, adding to the public’s confusion, he said. And it’s not even known if cucumbers — as opposed to another vegetable entirely — are the source of the contamination.

“People don’t really know what they can and cannot eat and what they can and cannot buy,” he added.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health organization, has advised people from the start against eating uncooked cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. But that general advice, along with media reports saying the contamination might have come from manure used as fertilizer, has incensed vegetable growers.

“This blanket warning was pointless, because tomatoes and cucumbers in northern Germany only come from greenhouses, so a traditional infection method through manure is practically impossible,” Andreas Br├╝gger, director of the German fruit and vegetable retailers association (DFHV), told Deutsche Welle.

Vegetable growers, not just in Germany but in Spain and the Netherlands as well, are taking a beating. German vegetable growers put their losses at 30 million euros or $43 million per week, reported the Economist, and for Spanish farmers, 200 million euros, or $288 million.

Meanwhile, the public at large appears to be adjusting its eating habits.

Wroe said his dinner companions during a recent restaurant visit turned back their salads. “They just thought on the whole, even if it is a slight risk, they didn’t see the point of taking it.”

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