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Europe : bean sprouts might be responsible for bacteria

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Bean sprouts from the German state  of Lower-Saxony are suspected of being the source of the deadly E. coli  outbreak which has killed 22 people, the region’s agriculture ministry said  Sunday.

There was no definite proof as yet but “a connection has been found  involving all the main outbreaks,” regional agriculture minister Gert  Lindermann told a news conference.

Initial test results from a farm producing the bean sprouts, on the  outskirts of Lueneburg, showed contamination by the bacteria, the minister  said, adding that two people working there had fallen ill, and that one was  definitely sick with the bacteria.

Early indications are that the farm “is at least one of the sources of  contamination,” he added.

The bean sprouts are from a variety of products, mainly lettuce, his  ministry said in a statement.

The sprouts grow in “temperatures of 37 degrees celsius which is ideal for  all bacteria,” the minister added. The farm involved in producing them is located in the small village of  Bienenbuettel, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Hamburg, one of the main  cities hit by the bacteria outbreak.

News of the possible breakthrough came as the death toll climbed to 22,  with the latest figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and  Control (ECDC) adding three victims to the previously confirmed 19.

All but one of the deaths occurred in Germany, the source of the   enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) outbreak which has affected 12 countries.  The other victim died in Sweden.

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr, who was on Sunday visiting Hamburg’s  Eppendorf University clinic where many of the region’s EHEC patients are being  treated, has warned that the source of infection could still be active.

“Food health officials are working around the clock to identify the source  of the infection,” Bahr told the Ruhr Nachrichten newspaper on Saturday.    “But from earlier outbreaks we know that we can’t always identify the  source.

“It can’t be ruled out that the source of infection is still active,” he  added, pointing to the need for continued vigilance as authorities still  counsel against eating raw tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers.

Speaking to Bild am Sonntag, Bahr said also the situation in a number of  north German hospitals, especially Hamburg and Bremen, was “difficult” because  of the high number of admissions, adding that other hospitals would be called  upon to help.

Cases of E. coli poisoning have also been reported in more than 12 other   countries, including Austria, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France,  The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.  Each was related to German travel.

Meanwhile, several German scientists Sunday suggested the outbreak could be  linked to bacteria found in biogas plants.

Biogas, or methane, is produced by the anaerobic digestion or fermentation  of biodegradable materials such as manure, sewage and green waste.    “There are all sorts of bacteria which didn’t exist before which are now  produced in biogas fermentation tanks,” Bernt Schottdorf, a medical analyst,  told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

“They crossbreed and mix with one another — what goes on precisely hasn’t  really been studied,” he said, adding that 80 percent of the production waste  finds its way back onto fields as fertiliser.

Ernst Guenther Hellwig, head of the veterinary and agriculture academy in  Horstmar-Leer, said that because it had rained very little in the spring it  was possible such fertilisers had not been washed off growing plants.    “Dangerous bacteria could be brought onto the fields this way and could  contaminate vegetables,” he said.

The WHO has identified the bacteria as a rare E. coli strain never before  connected to an outbreak of food poisoning. It is said to be extremely  aggressive and resistant to antibiotics.

The ECDC reported 1,605 cases of EHEC infection and 658 cases of the  associated condition haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) on Sunday.

Hanover, Germany, June 5, 2011 (AFP)