German health officials have set up a taskforce in an attempt to determine the origins of an unusually toxic strain of E. coli that has killed 19 people and infected over 1,700 in Europe.
Authorities are still unclear as to the source of the outbreak that has dented Spain’s agriculture industry and heightened health concerns in Europe with people unsure as to the safety of eating raw vegetables.
The World Health Organization said the strain of the bacteria was rare and that it was the first time an E. coli outbreak of this scale has happened.
Scientists think the contamination may have originated from poor hygiene practices at a farm or retail outlet, or during transport. European Health officials have tried to calm fears by instructing the public to wash vegetables and hands before eating, which can help stem the spread of E. coli and other bacteria.
Russia reacted strongly to the news of the fatalities, imposing an embargo on all fruit and vegetables from the European Union. Despite calls from EU trade representatives, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin refused to lift the ban, saying he would not “poison” his people by importing contaminated produce.
Putin’s dramatic words came after reports of 200 new cases of infection and warnings to avoid raw vegetables from certain parts of northern Germany, which is taking a heavy toll on farmers and fresh produce distributors during the peak season for salad.
Tense Trade Ties
The deadly E. coli first surfaced in Hamburg, Germany, and the contamination has spread to Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Austria, Czech Republic, France, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States.
All those who have fallen ill are believed to have eaten cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes or other raw vegetables in Germany. The spread of E. coli has caused tension between European trading partners. Germany initially pointed the finger at cucumbers from Andalusia as the origin of the outbreak, resulting in a plunge in demand for Spanish produce.
The accusations were later retracted following test results that showed no trace of E. coli on the cucumbers but the damage was done, with Spanish farmers reported to be losing €200 million ($290 million) per week in cancelled shipments.
Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is expected to seek compensation for the farmers for the massive loss in sales, which could put as many as 70,000 people out of work.
Most E. coli bacteria are harmless, but the strain spreading through Europe sticks to the walls of the intestines and produces strong toxins that can cause severe illness, including kidney failure.
The strain is believed to have caused the highest number of deaths since E. coli fatalities have been recorded, according to Robert Tauxe of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been collaborating with German health authorities since the outbreak.
Key Points – E. coli Outbreak
- Around €594 million ($853 million) worth of vegetables was exported by the EU to Russia last year, with the EU only importing €29 million from Russia.
- Over 1,700 cases of the deadly strain of E. coli have been reported since early May, with 19 deaths recorded as of June 3.
- EU health authorities encourage people to wash all fruit and vegetables, peel or cook them before eating, and to regularly wash hands to avoid the spread of bacteria.