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Deadly cucumbers not behind EU outbreak. So what is?

Deadly cucumbers from Spain are not cause of fatal E.coli outbreak, Germany concedes. But if not deadly cucumbers, then what? Officials don't know.

By Business editor / May 31, 2011

Cucumbers, two for 1 euro (US $1.40), are displayed for sale between other vegetables outside a supermarket in Berlin on May 30, 2011. German authorities had pointed to so-called deadly cucumbers from Spain as the source of an E.coli outbreak linked to 16 fatalities. But on May 31, 2011, they conceded that they were not the source of this particular virulent strain of the bacteria. Spanish growers are now crying foul.

Markus Schreiber/AP

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Spanish cucumbers are not the cause of an E.coli outbreak linked to 16 fatalities and some 1,200 infections in Europe, German authorities conceded Tuesday.

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But that admission, five days after Germany warned its citizens not to eat Spanish produce, has only deepened the mystery surrounding the virulent outbreak, centered in Germany, and has come too late for Spanish cucumber growers.

The industry now faces what growers worldwide often endure in the aftermath of a serious outbreak: a plunge in sales that can take months or even years to recover from. Besides Germany, at least six European nations have stopped accepting Spanish produce. Russia has halted produce shipments from Spain and Germany and is now threatening to extend the prohibition to the entire European Union.

The United States has intensified its inspections of incoming Spanish cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce. However, vegetable imports into the US tail off during the summer when US vegetable farms are in full swing, and Spanish imports are minuscule, anyway. Last year, Mexico and Canada accounted for 97 percent or more of US imports of each of the three vegetables.

Spanish farms, which reportedly already are laying off workers, claim to be losing some 200 million euros ($286 million) per week in lost sales, Reuters reports. Spain's agriculture minister said her country would be asking for extraordinary compensation.

The bigger question remains unresolved: What caused the source of the virulent strain of bacteria, known as Shiga toxin-producing E.coli? German authorities had found E.coli in Spanish cucumbers, but later said it was not the same strain.

Authorities have linked the virulent E.coli to 15 German fatalities as well as the death of one Swede who had traveled to Germany. Authorities also blame the bacteria for some 1,200 cases of illness in Germany as well as for citizens of Spain, Sweden, Britain, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the US who had recently been to Germany.

That's a far higher toll than in America's 1993 E.coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants, which was linked to the deaths of four children and nearly did in the restaurant chain, or the 2006 E.coli fresh spinach outbreak, held responsible for three fatalities and dealt a huge blow to the US spinach industry.

– Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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