Source of Europe's E. coli outbreak still baffles experts

German officials now say that Spanish cucumbers are probably not the cause of a deadly E. coli outbreak that experts have linked to at least nine deaths.

By , Correspondent

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    Cucumbers are displayed for sale between other vegetables outside a supermarket in Berlin on Monday. Vegetables from Spain are suspected of carrying the dangerous E.coli bacteria, which public health officials say has killed people in Germany and caused many hundreds of people to become ill across Europe.
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The European Union appeared to make little progress Tuesday in agreeing on a common response to a mysterious outbreak of an E. coli bacteria strain.

A joint statement by member states after hours of deliberation tried to correct the number of victims, saying nine had died in Germany, with five more still pending confirmation. The statement also said fewer than 500 cases had been reported throughout Europe, instead of the 1,000 earlier reported cases.

Two separate EU meetings, one of agriculture officials in Hungary and another of health officials in Brussels, offered little reassurance that member countries had overcome mistrust after a week-long blame game. Member states and the commission “encouraged Germany to take all necessary measures in order to identify, as soon as possible, all sources linked to the outbreak and the way the contamination occurred.”

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Agriculture officials agreed to meet next week, only after Germany conceded that Spanish produce was not the origin. And health officials only recommended applying “common hygiene rules to limit the risk of contamination.”

“This issue is an absolute priority,” said EU Health Commissioner John Dalli in a statement released late Tuesday. “The European Commission is working with the German authorities, in particular, to ensure that the source of the problem is identified in order to be able to propose relevant solutions.”

“It is positive that the number of new infection cases seems to be declining, but all authorities must ensure continuous surveillance, which is crucial at this stage, as we are still working to pin down the possible source of contamination and eliminate risks for public health,” Mr. Dalli said in the statement.

The outbreak is limited geographically to the Hamburg area in Germany, and the cases that have appeared elsewhere in Europe affected people who have recently visited Germany.

Women and elderly have been the most affected by what European authorities are calling one of the deadliest E. coli contaminations ever and the biggest in Germany.

In a rare admission, Germany backtracked on what now appears was a precipitous conclusion that Spanish produce was to blame. “Germany recognizes that the Spanish cucumbers are not the cause,” German state secretary for Agriculture Robert Kloos reportedly said Tuesday while at the EU agriculture ministers meeting in Hungary.

Final tests of three cucumbers that originated in Spain showed two of these did not carry the deadly strain of E. coli, contrary to what German health officials said last week. The results of the third remain to be released.

Spain was angered that Germany identified Spanish cucumbers as the origin of the outbreak, in what Spanish press is calling the “cucumber crisis.”

“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,” said Spanish Agriculture minister Rosa Aguilar in Hungary.

France also scolded Spain and Germany for the handling of the outbreak.

“At first the German authorities were categorical,” said Health Minister Xavier Bertrand in a TV interview. “Today there are more and more questions arising. I want to know the origin. We need completely transparent information from the German authorities, and from the Spanish authorities as well.”

European countries and Russia banned Spanish produce as a result, turning back trucks and canceling orders, at a cost of $280 million a week. Spain demanded compensation, but it remained unclear if it would get it, at least to cover its losses.

“We looked at the few tools available at European level. Unfortunately the tools available have been reduced in recent years,” said EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos in a statement following the Hungary meeting.

“It is important to provide as soon as possible accurate and credible information in order to help consumers to make the right choices,” Mr. Ciolos said in a veiled criticism of Germany’s handling of the outbreak.

The German U-turn, though, also appeared to have immediate effect. One of Spain’s biggest produce suppliers said it had received a big order of melons and watermelons Tuesday from a German distributor.

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