The agricultural minister of the Lower Saxony region of Germany, Gert Lindemann, has identified German bean sprouts as the probable source for the recent E. coli outbreak that caused 22 deaths and over 2,200 illnesses so far, with many of them developing the deadly haemolytic uraemic syndrome that attacks the kidneys.
Lower Saxony’s agriculture ministry recently conducted tests on 40 samples of the suspected sprouts from an organic bean sprout farm called Gaertnerhof. As of now,
23 of the samples have tested negative, and an investigation at the Gaertnerhof farm also found no traces of the harmful E. coli strain.
Despite the negative test results, several factors continue to associate the factory to the E. coli outbreak. Several restaurants and locations connected to the outbreak received their shipment of sprouts from that company. In addition, two workers at Gaertnerhof and two U.S. men working on the case in Germany have developed illness and diarrhea due to E. coli infections. Officials argue that the negative results could be explained by the possibility that the E. coli strain infected the sprouts and company at an earlier period and could therefore no longer be found there. Although the unusual strain has been found in a variety of other products, like cucumbers and tomatoes, officials say that the farm continues to be “the most convincing source for the E. coli illnesses”.
Gaertnerhof has expressed that it is “shocked and worried” due to the connection between the company and the tragedies caused by the E. coli outbreak. The small farm, which has been growing sprouts for 25 years, has been closed down and all of its goods and products are being recalled.
The identification of German sprouts as the source of the E. coli outbreak comes as a bittersweet resolve to Spanish farmers, whose cucumbers were initially believed to be the source. Last week E. coli was found in organic cucumbers from Spain, but they were packaged and distributed in Germany. As a result, demand and consumption of Spanish agricultural goods has declined by 40% since the outbreak, causing Spanish farmers to lose €200m euros in sales per week and threatening to leave 70,000 people out of work.
Due to the fact that the outbreak has also affected agricultural consumption throughout Europe, the European Union plans to hold an assembly to discuss how to help Spanish farmers with their losses. The director of Fepex, a group of Spanish produce exporters, has demanded that Germany not only apologize for the damage the outbreak has caused to the Spanish farming industry but also pay them 400 million euros, equivalent to $584 million, for profit losses.
As for the infected bean sprouts, since 1996 there have been 30 outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli from sprouts, including a serious one in radish sprouts that caused 9,451 cases of E. coli infection in Japan. According to health officials, bacteria in sprouts can grow in the seeds or in the water used to grow them; in this case the water is believed to have been the source of the problem. Sprouts are grown in 38°C water, which is considered a perfect temperature for bacteria such as E. coli to thrive in and spread massively.
Although they are unsure of whether the current death and illness rates have reached their peak, U.S. and U.K. health officials continue to encourage consumers to avoid bean sprouts as well as cucumbers, tomatoes, and salad leaves that may possibly be infected. During times of non-infection, health officials have always maintained that people with weak immune systems should only eat sprouts when they are well cooked.