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Bumbling E. coli investigation embarrasses German officials

The Local · 7 Jun 2011, 16:26

Published: 07 Jun 2011 16:26 GMT+02:00

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State agriculture ministers rarely make the news in Germany, but Gert Lindemann from Lower Saxony recently gained international attention by announcing contaminated sprouts might be responsible for killing at least 24 people and sickening thousands.

However, so far samples of the suspect sprouts have turned up negative, sparking renewed criticism that Germany’s response to the outbreak of virulent E. coli bacteria has been discombobulated.

Stefan Etgeton, health expert for the country’s leading consumer organization, said it was “unfortunate” that announcements about the sprouts had been made at the state level and not by a higher authority.

“I wish the information had come from the Robert Koch Institute,” said Etgeton, referring to Germany’s leading public health organization.

But not even the nation’s disease control experts at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) are being lauded for their handling of the E. coli epidemic.

Ulrich Frei, the director of doctors at the Charité clinic, recently complained the RKI had failed to supply patient questionnaires to Berlin’s top hospital and it was not always entirely clear what the institute was investigating.

Few would dispute that Germany’s worst outbreak of E. coli bacteria in modern memory has to be fought on many fronts, but some observers are concerned the various authorities are themselves unsure of their responsibilities.

Warnings not to eat raw cucumbers, tomatoes and salad from northern Germany have come from both the RKI – which reports to Health Minister Daniel Bahr – and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), which advises Consumer Protection and Agricultural Minister Ilse Aigner about potential health hazards.

But how do such institutions go about gathering their information?

The RKI first sent officials to Hamburg to question patients infected with the potentially deadly strain of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) in mid May. This served as the foundation for their initial health warnings. But tracking down the actually cause of the outbreak has been much more difficult.

Germany’s 16 states are responsible for ensuring foodstuffs are safe via checks coordinated by yet another federal agency – the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL). But the number of random checks is set regionally according to risk assessment done at the municipal and county level.

Of course, dangerous infectious diseases don’t stop at the state border and Germany’s food quality control was already heavily criticized in the wake of a dioxin scare earlier this year for being too uncoordinated and ineffective.

Story continues below…

Veterinarian disease expert Lothar Wieler recently complained to Der Spiegel magazine that information from local authorities was taking too long reach the RKI via state agencies: “Why can’t that stuff simply be sent directly electronically?”

But after falsely accusing Spanish cucumbers and the sprouts as the source of the E. coli, there are growing calls for setting up a centralized point to better coordinate both incoming and outgoing information during the crisis.

Presently, the RKI, BfR, and BVL all have their own information about EHEC online and both the Health Ministry and the Consumer Protection Ministry have step up separate information hotlines.

The Local/DPA/mry

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The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

17:39 June 7, 2011 by TheBigPhil
Has anyone considered that this could have been bioterrorism?

Thousands ill, dozens dead or dying, a new strain of E.Coli never seen before, difficulty in finding a common source . . .
17:53 June 7, 2011 by nemo999
I am sure that it may have crossed the minds of a few. But then again It maybe that the source of the outbreak will never be found.
18:13 June 7, 2011 by anna artist
TheBigPhil, I agree with you here, there is something a mis.

Something maybe leaked from somewhere?Maybe the politicians should read these posts, they might get a few ideas on what to do next.
19:36 June 7, 2011 by Bayougreen
If you test a sample for E. Coli, the first results come off after 24 hours. The first results give you a presumptive positive or a negative. If it is negative you know there is no E. Coli. If it is presumptive positive there might be E. Coli present.(there are several non-pathogenic organisms that are close relatives of E. Coli that can give a false positive.) Further testing is done on the presumptive positives to determine if E. Coli is actually present. This can take 2 to 3 more days. This will give you the definitive answer.

Apparently, when these bureaucrats see a presumptive positive they run to the media and say we have solved the problem. When days later the tests prove that they were false positives, they have egg on their faces and have caused a lot unnecessary damage to farmers and the food industry
21:40 June 7, 2011 by Californian
Possibly interesting further reading on the E.coli outbreak.


Stay safe out there.
22:11 June 7, 2011 by AbhilashD
@ Californian - Sorry mate, but I stopped reading that article after it said some nonsense about repeatedly exposing it to antibiotics to make it resistant. Quatsch.
23:21 June 7, 2011 by wood artist

Your point is well taken, however, it shouldn't change the way the investigation proceeds. Step one is always finding the common source...someplace(s) and food that the original victims have in common, even if it is multiple locations. From there, delving into what specific items they ate and further testing should reveal the source.

If it were terrorism, the process would be the same, even if it become impossible to find a trail (since there wouldn't be any) beyond that. Years ago, in Oregon, the only documented case of biological terrorism was followed exactly that way...traced to a salad bar at a pizza place and eventually to a cult that had drawn the ire of the government. Given some of the ties the Hamburg area has had to other terrorist events, this doesn't seem impossible.

23:28 June 7, 2011 by CLW
Here's an interesting article-


David Katz, M.D.

Director, Yale Prevention Research Center

E. Coli: Blame the Meat, Not the Sprouts
05:31 June 8, 2011 by x.w.
I complained to Hamburg government a while back about people not picking up after their dogs. And got zero response. All that stuff left all over the ground can't be healthy. We seem to be the only responsible dog owners.
07:18 June 8, 2011 by harcourt
The authorities do not make too much of the fact that (they say )70% of cases are women. As a layman I would have thought this was an important factor. Not as they sometimes mention about male/female vulnerability to infections, no, - more I would think about eating habits, venues where women might eat( without their children) rather than men etc. Just a thought.
09:44 June 23, 2011 by justmecookin
Citing E. coli bacteria, Russia bans food products from 300 German companies

By Associated Press, Published: June 22

MOSCOW - Russian regulators are introducing a ban on meat and milk products from some 300 German companies, citing concern about E. coli.

The statement by the agricultural oversight agency Rosselkhoznadzor did not identify the companies but said the ban will begin Monday.

The agency¦#39;s chief, Sergei Dankvert, told the Interfax news agency Wednesday that the ban follows inspections of German imports that found bacteria related to E. coli.

Recently, an E. coli outbreak killed 39 people and infected more than 3,500, most in Germany, and it was traced to sprouts from a farm there. Russia responded by imposing a ban on imports of vegetables from the EU, which it lifted Wednesday.

Russia seems to believe that E. coli outbreak is now affecting German meat and milk products.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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