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E. coli outbreak: blame game delays common response

E. coli investigations are under way in Germany, where 16 have died, as well as Spain and the EU Commission. Germany has targeted Spanish produce, but Spain says the supply chain could be a culprit.

By Correspondent / May 31, 2011

A worker arranges cucumbers in a farmers' cooperative in El Ejido, near Almeria in southeastern Spain, May 31. E. coli investigations are under way in Germany, where 16 have died, as well as Spain.

Francisco Bonilla/Reuters

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Madrid

European agriculture ministers were meeting Tuesday in Hungary about the spread of a mysterious deadly strain of E. Coli that has killed 16 people, mostly in northern Germany, and affected more than 1,000 throughout Europe. But a blame game over the origin of the contamination is threatening a common response.

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Germany's Hamburg Institute for Hygiene and the Environment last week was the first to report that organic cucumbers grown in southern Spain, one of Europe’s biggest breadbaskets, were contaminated.

But Spain has reacted angrily, saying that there is no evidence that Spain is the source, even if the cucumbers originated there, because they could have been contaminated anywhere along the supply and handling chain.

Germany, Spain, and the EU Commission are all conducting separate investigations, but Spanish officials say Germany is taking too long to release results, adding to the uncertainty over the source of the contamination and thus hampering efforts to contain it.

“Spain is not satisfied,” said Rosa Aguilar, Spain’s Agriculture minister, upon her arrival Tuesday in Hungary for the EU ministerial summit. “Germany must give transparent information quickly so that the EU knows where the problem is.” The priority is to find the source of the problem in Germany, “which is where all these circumstances are taking place,” she said. While people outside Germany have been affected, most had recently traveled in the country, according to reports.

Indeed, while the European Union said a batch of contaminated produce was detected in the Spanish provinces of Almeria and Malaga, a separate one from either Denmark or the Netherlands – also sent through Germany – is now being investigated, suggesting that the contamination could be in the handling, not the production.

“All hypotheses are still open. But the fact that it appears that there are contaminated cucumbers from other places, like the Netherlands and Denmark, suggest a different origin of the bacteria,” said Roberto Sabrido, the head of the Spanish food safety agency, in an interview in a Spanish newspaper Monday.

Mostly elderly people are being affected by what European authorities are calling one of the deadliest E Coli contaminations ever, and the biggest in Germany. The cucumbers are grown in Spain, packaged in Germany, and distributed to countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, and Spain.

Meanwhile, Sweden reported the first death outside Germany as a result of the outbreak and one man is in critical condition in Spain. All cases have been linked to produce consumption in northern Germany, and authorities there are warning people not to eat raw tomatoes, cucumbers, or lettuce.

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said Monday that the source still hasn’t been identified.

That has done little to calm Spanish concerns. Produce trucks are being rejected throughout Europe and several countries, now including Russia, have banned imports. Spain has demanded that Germany stop blaming Spain until final results are released, saying $280 million are being lost per week. Spain will demand compensation, Mrs. Aguilar, the Agriculture minister, said.

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