Germany confirms source of E.coli outbreak

Berlin: A German government health institute said Saturday that bean sprouts had led to a deadly bacteria outbreak that spread panic across Europe and claimed at least 33 lives.

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) confirmed test results announced on Friday that identified bean sprouts from an organic farm in the northern village of Bienenbuettel as carrying the virulent E. coli strain EHEC-0104, ending a frantic two-week probe.

The killer bug has left some 3,000 people ill across 14 countries and led to several bans on vegetables grown in Europe, which have cost farmers millions of euros (dollars) in losses.

Test results on a packet of vegetable sprouts recovered from the rubbish bin of two sick people living in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia provided the first direct trail evidence for the bacteria.

A man notified authorities after suspecting he might be in possession of some of the dangerous sprouts. The Bienenbuettel farm has since closed down.

"These results are an important step in the chain of evidence," said BfR director Andreas Hensel.

The EU executive`s health chief John Dalli welcomed the confirmation.

"The source of contamination is now identified and the epidemiological findings are backed by laboratory results," he said in a statement.

European Union "consumers and trade partners shall now have full confidence as regards the safety of EU vegetables", he added, as the health scare has cost farmers hundreds of millions of euros in lost sales around the continent.

Pledging to "draw lessons" from one of the world`s biggest bacterial outbreaks, Dalli said investigations would continue until the links between victims, food establishments and the Bienenbuettel farm were clarified.

The probe would also focus on finding how the specific E.coli strain snuck itself into the food chain, he added.

The health commissioner voiced hope that Russia would quickly lift its ban on EU vegetable imports following a Russia-EU summit on Friday between European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Despite the confirmation demands for compensation persisted.

The head of the German Farmers Federation Gert Sonnleiter wants the EU`s agricultural commissioner to increase the 210-million-euro ($303 million) offer to injured farmers, the Tagesspiegel newspaper reported Saturday.

"Damages in the whole of the EU have reached between 500 million and 600 million euros," including a 65-million-euro loss suffered by German farmers alone, Sonnleiter said.

German health authorities had told consumers to avoid raw cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce on suspicion that those vegetables were the source of the bacteria that has killed 32 people in Germany and another in Sweden.

Speaking on WDR-5 radio station on Saturday, the minister for the environment and consumer protection in North-Rhine-Westphalia, Johannes Remmel, urged all consumers to report any suspicious vegetable sprouts.

"We are still in the dark... Was the bacteria carried by humans or animals," he said.

He also applauded a "very vigilant" man who notified the authorities after suspecting he might be in possession of some of the dangerous sprouts.

German authorities had initially identified cucumbers imported from Spain as responsible for the outbreak, but later retracted when tests proved negative, infuriating Madrid and sparking threats of lawsuits.

Spanish farmers say they have lost 225 million euros every week since the crisis erupted.

Farmers were futher hit when Russia imposed a blanket ban on vegetables from the 27-nation EU bloc, a move blasted by EU officials.

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that "the epidemic is declining", but cautioned that "new deaths cannot be ruled out", in an interview to be published Sunday.

After criticism of the government`s handling of the crisis, the agriculture and health ministries said Berlin would review the response on the federal and state level.

Bureau Report

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