Sunday, June 5, 2011

Germany Names New E. Coli Suspect: Bean Sprouts


HAMBURG—German agricultural authorities on Sunday evening said bean sprouts might have caused the Escherichia coli bacterial outbreak.

The agricultural ministry in the German state of Lower Saxony reported a bean-sprout farm tested positive for E. Coli, and deliveries of that product had been tied to several restaurants where diners suffered infections. At a news conference, they said a farm employee had been infected with the bacteria, and the farm has been shut down.

The ministry warned against eating bean sprouts, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. Authorities added that testing hadn't been concluded to determine whether the bean sprouts in question carried the same bacterial strain as the one tied to the outbreak.

Despite the bean-sprout alert, the German government on Sunday cautioned on Sunday afternoon that it was too early to conclude whether bean sprouts were a source, and reiterated its recommendation that consumers avoid eating raw lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers after conducting studies showing that 95% of all patients infected with E. coli ate one of those three things.

In Hamburg, the port city where the outbreak—which has taken 22 lives and sickened more than 1,600 people over the past few weeks—seems to have originated, the mystery outbreak has taken an economic toll as many worried consumers swear off eating lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Those vegetables typically adorn German sandwiches and most other meals, including the herring and other seafood sandwiches at the affluent, northern city's 300-year-old fish market, which stretches along its massive harbor and bustles with live music, flea-market mavens and hundreds of food vendors.

But early on Sunday, Abdullah Erber was one of dozens who didn't bother bringing lettuce to sell at their open-air stands.

"If it keeps going like this.," he said, trailing off as he looked at the bins of untouched fruit and vegetables across his 30-foot-long long display. "It's already so bad."

The red-brick-dominated city of Hamburg, which lies along the Elbe River about an hour's drive southeast of the North Sea, was home to the first cases of the bacterial infections and the majority of reported infections with the worst complications have been reported within a few hundred kilometers of the city.

Another theory health authorities have explored is that the city's harbor-anniversary celebration in early May—which attracted 1.5 million visitors—played a role in spreading the infections, which have been reported in at least 12 countries. Nearly all of the cases have been tied to Germany.

The German Farmers' Association has estimated its farmers are losing some €30 million ($44 million) a week in sales. But the economic impact goes beyond that for restaurants, produce suppliers and markets in the region.

At Sunday's fish market, which opens at 5 a.m., hundreds of locals and tourists gathered early to listen to the fish auctions, shop or continue the party after a night of revelries in Hamburg's nearby Reeperbahn district. But piles of cucumbers and cases of tomatoes sat untouched by those wandering through the stalls. And fish sandwiches were sold without the usual toppings of lettuce, cucumber or other raw vegetables.

Mr. Erber says he is losing between €500 and €1,000 in sales per day. And while he usually sells about 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds, of tomatoes at €2.90 per kilogram, he has dropped the price to €1 per kilogram. Still, no one is buying.

"No one wants it," he said.

While the source of the outbreak still isn't certain, authorities continue their frenzied search for the cause. Hamburg hospitals have been flooded with patients, requiring doctors and nurses to work overtime and skip vacations. There is talk of reactivating retired doctors and nurses. Recent clues haven't led to conclusive answers about the cause of the outbreak, and the director of Germany's Robert Koch Institute said he can't rule out that the source might already be gone.

At a news conference on Sunday, Hamburg health minister Cornelia Prufer-Storcks said she is disappointed that some restaurants are still selling salads.

"Avoiding raw tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers is the best way to avoid more cases," added Germany's health minister, Daniel Bahr.

In Hamburg, sandwiches in glass bakery cases look bare without any garnish. Signs dot restaurant windows, advising customers that either extra precautions are being taken, such as washing produce twice, or that no vegetables are being served. Grocery stores have plenty of lettuce in stock—most of which is starting to wilt.

At a small bakery near the Hamburg Altona train station, sales of now very plain sandwiches have dropped.

"The customers aren't excited about it," said the manager, Anja Rehfeld. The location, one in a chain of about 180 in north Germany, usually uses about 20 kilograms of tomatoes a week.

Trendy Café Knuth, a favorite hangout for locals with small tables surrounding the corner Hamburg Altona establishment, set a blackboard sign outside the restaurant informing customers no veggies are being served.. The decision removed about half the café's menu items, said the owner, Einar Möller, and sales have been hard hit. He declined to say by how much, but said it is "too much."

The infection "is the enemy among us," he says, shaking his head. "It's like an alien or something. Everyone knows someone who has gotten ill."

Many cafes and restaurants around town have made the same tough decision - in part because most Germans are avoiding raw produce anyway.

"I think it's a little hysterical, but then again, I'm not eating them," said Andreas Bastian, who lives in Hamburg. "Even if a restaurant or store puts out a sign saying they've taken precautions, I'm avoiding them."

He has skipped raw produce since the warnings came out—as has the hotel where he works. The hotel's breakfast buffet "now has mozzarella without tomatoes," he said with a laugh.

At the Mercado, an inside market hall with independent fast-food stands and specialty food retailers, most of the businesses have seen a hit of at least 50% to their profits, owners said.

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