Farm behind E. coli not likely to face prosecution
German officials say that the likely source of the deadly E. coli epidemic, a vegetable sprout farm in Lower Saxony, will probably not face criminal prosecution.
“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.”