Tate & Lyle
Carst and Walker
E Coli outbreak

Massive fallout from Germany’s E coli outbreak

After days of recriminations that threatened new inter-European trade wars, German authorities have conceded that contaminated Spanish cucumbers are not, after all, to blame for the E coli outbreak thas has killed at least 17 people and infected more than 1 500 others. The outbreak raises questions about what risks the infection continues to pose and what fallout it will cause. [Picture: Clara Aguilera, the Minister for Agriculture of the Andalusian regional government, eats a cucumber in an attempt to prove they are safe]

Where did the infection come from?

The source of the E. coli outbreak is still unknown. It was initially linked to cucumbers imported to Germany from Spain, but Robert Kloos, Germany’s agriculture minister, is reported to have said that tests have cleared the Spanish cucumbers.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) says transmission of the strain of bacterium, commonly found in cattle, usually occurs through contaminated food or water and contact with animals.

What food types are affected and from where?

With suspicion moving away from cucumbers, it is unclear what foodstuffs present a risk. There were concerns over all raw vegetables, particularly salad ingredients such as lettuce and tomatoes normally eaten without cooking, and these remained a likely cause because of animal manure used as fertiliser.

Who are the victims?

The ECDCP says the bacteria’s impact on individuals can be affected by their age with children under five usually at higher risk of developing disease and dying from infection.

However, statistics published on May 27 showed that of 276 cases, 87% were adults and 68% were women. One hospital in Hamburg said it had up to 700 infected patients. Of 85 people at risk of renal failure, 20 are children and 65 are adults. Sweden, which appears to have the biggest cluster of cases outside of Germany, has reported several dozen people hospitalized.

Experts remained puzzled as to why the bacteria continue to affect more women than men. One theory is that women are more health-conscious and likely to eat salad. Professor Ulf Goebel of the Institute of Microbiology at the Charité Hospital, Berlin, said: “At present [it is affecting] mostly adult people: young adults and women are severely affected. The reason for this is still unknown.”

What is E. Coli?

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a bacteria found living in the intestines of people and animals. It can be transmitted through contaminated water of food — especially raw vegetables and undercooked meat.

It is usually harmless, but can cause brief bouts of diarrhea. Some nastier strains can cause severe diarrhea and followed by serious organ system damage such as kidney failure. Healthy adults usually recover within a week, but young children and older adults can develop a life-threatening kidney failure.

Why is this strain so deadly?

The European Food Safety Alert Network identifies the bacteria linked to the contaminated cucumbers as EHEC, or enterohemorrhagic E coli, a strain which is particularly virulent and resistant to antibiotics.

In Hamburg, up to 30% of people admitted to hospital with the infection were said to have developed haemolytic-uremic syndrome, a life-threatening form of kidney failure.

How far has it spread?

The ECDPC says the outbreak it is the largest in the world of its kind. So far there have been more than a dozen E. coli-linked deaths in Germany and hundreds of infections, but more are expected. Infections have also been reported across western Europe but so far the cases in Austria, Britain, Denmark, France Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland have all involved people returning from travel to Germany. There have been reports of two people taken ill seriously ill after returning to the United States.

What advice is being given to consumers?

Germany has advised people to avoid all raw vegetables, particularly cucumber, lettuce and tomatoes. Advice has varied from country-to-country, but others have also issued food alerts. The ECDPC says there is a risk of person-to-person transmission from people carrying the infection. “Personal hygiene messages are important,” it says.

What is the economic fallout?

With exports of Spanish vegetables “paralyzed” according to officials, weekly losses of about €200 million ($288 million) are predicted. There are also concerns about the long-term impact this will have on Spain’s fruit and vegetable market, last year worth €8.6 billion.

Producers have already reported that seeded fruit exports are being affected, despite being unrelated to the scare. In addition to Germany, a number of European countries including Russia and Belgium have banned vegetable imports from Spain.

Germany has reportedly also drastically reduced imports from the Netherlands. The cucumber alert could also have diplomatic fallout, with producers urging Spain’s prime minister to step in, complaining German authorities have condemned Spanish produce without proof.

Leire Pajin, the Spanish Health Minister, has discussed the outbreak on Twitter, saying: “In the absence of proof, we’re not ruling out using all necessary measures to make sure there’s compensation for the (economic) damage,” she wrote. “From the first day, the government launched a diplomatic offensive to prevent the linking of this health crisis with our products.”

Russia meanwhile threatened to extend its ban on German and Spanish produce to include the whole of the European Union, as growers demanded hundreds of millions of euros to compensate them for the collapse of cucumber, tomato and lettuce sales.

The German State Agriculture Secretary Robert Kloos admitted that tests revealed that Spanish cucumbers did not carry the deadly bacteria strain – confirming earlier investigations carried out on three sites in Spain. “Germany recognises that the Spanish cucumbers are not the cause,” he told reporters at an EU farm ministers meeting in Hungary.

The Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar criticised the German response: “Germany accused Spain of being responsible for the E.coli contamination in Germany, and it did it with no proof, causing irreparable damage to the Spanish production sector.” Her Andalusian counterpart, Clara Aguilera, appeared on television to eat a cucumber, in the hope of convincing the continent that they were safe.

Denmark, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden and Belgium have stopped importing Spanish produce while Germany itself has told consumers to stop eating it.

The French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand also condemned the handling of the crisis. “I want to know the origin [of the contamination]. We need completely transparent information from the German authorities, and from the Spanish authorities as well,” he said.

The European Commission said it was doing everything it could to find the source of the outbreak but that, despite the mounting death toll, a ban on any product remained “disproportionate”. Britain’s Health Protection Agency said there was no evidence to suggest any infected products had reached the UK but advised consumers to wash and peel salad and fruit before eating it. So far three people in the UK have been infected, all of them Germans.

Source: CNN, The Independent

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