August 11, 2022

E. Coli Not Found in Initial Testing of Sprouts

The announcement, made at a news conference Monday afternoon, came a day after officials had identified tainted sprouts from a farm in the Uelzen area in the north as the “most convincing” cause, and shut it down while it tested 18 sprout mixtures, including beans, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, garlic, lentils, mung beans and radishes. The sprouts are often used in mixed salads.

The results from the remaining 17 tests were expected within 24 hours.

The German authorities had acted prematurely once before in their investigation, blaming cucumbers grown in Spain for the outbreak after preliminary tests showed that they might have contained toxic E. coli bacteria. Further tests showed that the Spanish cucumbers did not contain the strain making people sick, and investigators then backtracked.

That episode infuriated Spanish farmers who lost tens of millions of dollars in sales and were forced to abandon ripe vegetables to rot in the fields, as demand collapsed.

The outbreak, which German health authorities first reported in late May, is caused by a rare strain of toxic E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea. In extreme cases it can cause acute kidney failure and death. In previous outbreaks involving other strains of E. coli, kidney failure appeared most often among children. In this outbreak, most victims with kidney failure have been adults and more than two-thirds have been women. Cases have cropped up in at least 10 countries in Europe, but virtually all have been traced to northern Germany.

Sprouts had seemed like a likely source, and some experts were surprised that Germany had not focused on them earlier. Since 1996, sprouts have been linked to at least 30 illness outbreaks, according to a United States federal food safety Web site that warns that children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems should not eat uncooked sprouts.

Sprouts were found to be the cause of one of the most severe series of outbreaks of E. coli ever identified, in Japan in 1996. In those outbreaks about 10,000 people, many of them children, fell ill after eating food containing uncooked radish sprouts. That involved the common O157:H7 strain of E. coli. The current outbreak in Germany involves a rare strain known as O104:H4.

Bacteria can flourish in the warm, humid conditions in which sprouts are grown, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control. Investigators have sometimes found that the seeds used to grow sprouts are contaminated with bad bacteria, like E. coli or salmonella. Once those seeds start growing, the bacteria can easily spread.

The Spanish government did not comment Sunday on the latest news in the German investigation. But mounting evidence that the problem should never have been linked to produce from Spanish farms is likely to raise pressure on Germany and the European Union to compensate Spanish farmers for estimated weekly losses of $286 million in revenue because of canceled shipments, as well as massive job cuts among seasonal growers in Andalusia.

That area, the Spanish agricultural heartland, was already suffering the worst unemployment problem in the country.

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