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Farm behind E. coli not likely to face prosecution

Published: 11 Jun 2011 14:04 GMT+02:00

“According to all indications so far, the company did nothing wrong,” Gert Lindemann, agriculture minister in the state, told the Rhein Neckar Zeitung in remarks published on Saturday.

He said the organic farm in the village of Bienenbüttel had high hygiene standards and that it was still unclear where the aggressive enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) bacteria had originally come from.

The deadly epidemic has killed 32 people in Germany and one in Sweden and left over 3,000 ill.

Meanwhile the president of the Lower Saxony Farmers Association, Werner Hilse, has criticized the authorities for naming the farm at all. “They could have just said: It is a farm in Lower Saxony that is affected by EHEC and that has been closed and then warned against eating sprouts,” he told the Neuen Presse newspaper.

“The name is completely irrelevant to the public,” he insisted, adding that the fact that the farm has been named means that it will probably have to close.

On Friday, the virulent bacteria was found in a package of sprouts, giving the first direct proof that the farm is the likely source. However, the final verification is still pending.

The discovery was made in sprouts in the garbage can of two sick people living in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state's Consumer Affairs Ministry announced.

This was "the first time an unbroken chain of evidence" had been found linking virulent bacteria to a northern German sprouts farm, the ministry said.

Up till now, the dangerous strain of the E. coli bacteria EHEC-O104 had not been detected in food samples or at the organic farm in Lower Saxony.

Health officials investigating the epidemic are nevertheless convinced that sprouts were the source of the outbreak.

This certainty led the government to lift its earlier warning against eating raw tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, something that had had a devastating effect on the continent’s vegetable producers.

In particular Spanish farmers suffered huge losses after health authorities in the city of Hamburg pointed the finger of blame at cucumbers imported from the southern European country.

EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos has said he hopes that the demand for vegetables will rebound now that the warning against eating tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers has been lifted.

“I hope that the market will recover quickly,” he told the Passauer Neue Presse.

He said the EU will work at compensating farmers for the massive loss in earnings caused by the food scare in recent weeks. He expects the EU member states to approve a €210 million aid package on Tuesday.

But Gerd Sonnleiter, president of the German Farmers Association, thinks that sum is insufficient.

"Damages in the whole of the EU have reached between €500 million and €600 million," including a €65 million loss suffered by German farmers alone, Sonnleiter told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Meanwhile, German Health Minister Daniel Bahr has said that he is optimistic that the epidemic may have peaked.

“There is reason to hope that we are over the worst,” he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. However, he insisted that “further deaths cannot be ruled out, as painful as that is.”

The Local/AFP/DPA/DAPD/smd

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

16:35 June 11, 2011 by catjones
Existentialism at its best.
16:50 June 11, 2011 by anna artist
Why does your translations always state Sprouts

I am of the understanding that the farm produced Bean sprouts and not Brussel Sprouts. To the local, can you please clarify in your translations?

I hope this is all over but something doesn't add up, how about the whole truth?
17:14 June 11, 2011 by finanzdoktor
"On Friday, the virulent bacteria was found in a package of sprouts, giving the first direct proof that the farm is the likely source. However, the final verification is still pending."

Ironic. Final verification is still pending, but they went ahead and named this farm. Now, not to be too critical, what happens if final verification cannot be made? Can the farm owners sue the government? Will this be like the "Spanish cucumbers" debacle?
17:14 June 11, 2011 by ovalle3.14
Well for whatever reasons a business is connected to 30+ deaths and the Farmers' Association wants the responsible name simply omitted? Jawohl...
19:05 June 11, 2011 by FIUMAN
I would never want the American sue-crazy culture to come to Europe but there comes a point where you have to see the value in a good old fashioned tort suit to bring out the truth. Sorry if I smell bull but I do. People died. Almost certainly the survivors will never be the same. The comment that no laws were broken is unacceptable. That begs for a response by law makers and if that response is not coming a public exposure of the entire system of responsibility and oversight for food safety, purity and documentation. People have to know that if they endanger the lives of others with their practices it will result in financial AND legal implications for the responsible parties....including those governing agencies who SHOULD have been exercising oversight on this matter.
20:18 June 11, 2011 by owldog
"On Friday, the virulent bacteria was found in a package of sprouts...The discovery was made in sprouts in the garbage can of two sick people living in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state's Consumer Affairs Ministry announced."

Essentially, it seems the package of "organic" sprouts in which they found the bacteria, was in a garbage can.

The corporate-dominated TV media in the U.S.A. is spreading propanganda that is fait accompli. This is consistent with the American Agribusiness and FrankenFood Industry's enduring campaign of continually trying to put "Organic" and "E.Coli" in the same sentence.
21:36 June 11, 2011 by catjones
@FIUMAN.....'American sue-crazy'? Until I got to Germany I never heard of personal legal insurance. Maybe 1/2 my German friends carry it and I know no one in the States who does.
23:42 June 11, 2011 by Sysconfig
@owldog Essentially, it seems the package of "organic" sprouts in which they found the bacteria, was in a garbage can.

The corporate-dominated TV media in the U.S.A. is spreading propanganda that is fait accompli. This is consistent with the American Agribusiness and FrankenFood Industry's enduring campaign of continually trying to put "Organic" and "E.Coli" in the same sentence.

Very Interesting, and certainly every crisis brings out opportunists, the way some ambulances, and even funerals, bring out the attorneys.

And my condolences to the families of all those who perished in this...Sincerely.

Here it was a garbage can, which could have been exposed to residues common diapers, spoiled meat, carryind ecoli and slmonella, and everything in between.. That would make the Garbage can the only link? This Ecoli, found in our bowels, as I understand , is a super strain, which even washing hands would not have stopped. It also, implies, there may be a carrier, immune. So we may not have seen the last of this. Ruling out the remotest improbable cause, a home brew concoction, or deliberate contamination, we may have to resign ourselves to the fact , that nature at the microbial level, is far more opportunistic, and adaptive, then we could ever imagine.
10:09 June 12, 2011 by MfromUSA
It is possible that the sprouts were contaminated by the people. Not everyone has good hand hygiene after using the restroom. Perhaps the sprouts were fine when purchased. If no other packages of sprouts with the bacteria are found I would certainly not consider this one package enough of a sample.

Isn't it odd that all this illness and only one little package of contaminated sprouts?
10:43 June 12, 2011 by iseedaftpeople
@catjones

"@FIUMAN.....'American sue-crazy'? Until I got to Germany I never heard of personal legal insurance. Maybe 1/2 my German friends carry it and I know no one in the States who does."

I guess it's a cultural thing. It has to do with risk aversion. My observation is that Americans tend to be willing to accept greater risks, at least in some areas of life. You are much more likely in the U.S. to get your pants sued off for things that wouldn't even go to court here in Germany, and yet, as you said, personal legal insurance is nearly unheard of in America. Whereas in Germany, even if you get sued, no court will award a plaintiff millions of $$ like it happens frequently in the U.S. ... I guess most Germans are simply more afraid of bankruptcy, even if the risk of it is smaller than in the U.S.

That could also be one reason why healthcare and health insurance are still such a contentious issue in America. The very real possibility of medical bankruptcy, a term that pretty much doesn't exist in Germany and describes being up to your neck in debt from expensive medical treatments with hardly a chance of ever paying it off, should be reason enough to enact mandatory health insurance. And yet, among others, a great number of low-wage blue collar workers in the U.S. are against it for fear of losing monthly pay, although they are at the greatest risk of going broke over medical bills.
11:57 June 12, 2011 by delvek
@ iseedaftpeople

I think your correct. I have personal legal and liability insurance here in Germany but not in the United States.
15:04 June 12, 2011 by RHKo
¦quot;It was the sprouts¦quot; as the vehicle of dissemination, but the cause of the illnesses and deaths is a very particular bacterial strain: Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) O104:H4. ¦quot;Since 2008, eight cases of STEC O104 have been reported in the EU, by Austria (one case in 2010), Belgium (two cases in 2008), Denmark (one case in 2008), Norway (three cases in 2009), and Sweden (one case in 2010); three of these cases were imported. In addition, between 2004 and 2009, Austria and Germany reported some positive findings of STEC O104 in food or animals. However, the suggested outbreak strain of serotype STEC 0104:H4 has been rarely reported worldwide.¦quot; ¦quot;The isolated outbreak strain STEC O104:H4 is very rare. Prior to the current outbreak, only one case has been documented in literature, and this case was a woman in Korea in 2005.¦quot; http://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications/Publications/1105_TER_Risk_assessment_EColi.pdf

In addition to the rarity of disease caused by this particular strain, there is the resistance of it to multiple antibiotics, including recently introduced drugs unlikely to be used in agriculture because of their cost. In general, antibiotic resistance is the result of widespread inappropriate use of antibiotics. However, the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals in Europe ended in 2006, and studies of outpatient (human) antibiotic usage in Europe have repeatedly shown that greatest use is in southern Europe and least in the north where this outbreak has occurred.

So, we have an outbreak of food-borne illness linked to organic bean sprouts locally grown without the use of manure, with a bacterial strain unusual in many ways. This does not make sense. Some will suggest bioterrorism using a laboratory-produced bacterial strain, considering the possible Korea link and the antibiotic resistance. But this does not make sense either; 1)it would make more sense to use a more common STEC such as O157, and 2) the antibiotic resistance does not make the strain more deadly, as antibiotics are not used in the treatment of the illness, because doing so can precipitate the release of more toxin from the bacteria already present.

Very strange.
15:10 June 12, 2011 by XFYRCHIEF
@owldog - "The corporate-dominated TV media in the U.S.A. is spreading propanganda that is fait accompli. This is consistent with the American Agribusiness and FrankenFood Industry's enduring campaign of continually trying to put "Organic" and "E.Coli" in the same sentence."

Is there not a single article on this site that someone cannot somehow connect negatively with the U. S.? I have no idea how you came to this conclusion.
22:43 June 12, 2011 by wood artist
There are two questions here. The first is simply "can this outbreak be tied to a specific farm?" Possibly, but probably not at a level that would work in court. There is inference, but little more. Such is the nature of these types of investigations, largely because the time required to find commonality negates the evidence that might have once existed. Assuming whatever happened was an honest mistake, proving intent for a criminal case would be nearly impossible. A civil case for damages would be different, but still hard to prove.

The second question seems to ask whether Germany is somehow different than the US in these cases. It's hard to say, but I can be certain somebody in the US would be filing a suit already. I'm not proud of that, but it remains true. In the US, personal liability is often included in the homeowner's insurance policy, so it may not be as common to purchase it separately.

Personally, I would hope the "victim mentality" doesn't cross the pond. I'm sick of it here in the US, and nobody else needs it.
18:30 June 13, 2011 by Jack Kerouac
Gerd Sonnleiter is out of his mind! 500 million Euros for lost vegetable sales? Is he joking? No one buys that many vegetables to justify such a number. It has only been, what, two weeks since the breakout?
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