Consumers are again without answers after German officials announced Monday that results on beansprouts, suspected to be the culprit behind the massive E. coli outbreak across Europe and now hitting the U.S., tested negative for the deadly strain.
On Monday, officials with the Lower-Saxony state agriculture said 23 of 40 samples from the suspect sprout farm in Germany tested negative for the outbreak strain of E. coli.
At least 18 people have died and a reported 2,000 have fallen ill to the deadly bug.
Four U.S. patients, who recently visited Hamburg, Germany, are among the statistics, CDC officials said.
Federal officials in the United States said two of its military personnel in Germany were suspected to have come down with the illness.
Passengers returning from European countries should undergo immediate medical treatment if they develop acute diarrhea containing blood and/or acute renal failure, as they could be infected with the deadly E. coli type O104, which is spreading across Europe, said Public Health Minister Jurin Laksanawisit.
He said those who develop the symptoms within a week of returning from Europe should receive an immediate blood transfusion, as type-O104 bacteria can destroy the body's blood platelets.
People who have eaten contaminated foods will suffer from acute diarrhea and frequent vomiting, causing their kidneys to function abnormally. Some patients have died within three or four days of being infected.
“German health authorities Sunday said they had still not ruled out cucumbers, lettuce or tomatoes,” said Gretchen Goetz, spokesperson for the FDA.
“They've been wrong before – earlier pointing to tainted cucumbers from Spain that turned out to be contaminated with E. coli, but not with the outbreak strain.” Spanish exporters demanded a formal apology and compensation of at least $584 million for losses that growers suffered when demand for their products plummeted.
As the mysterious E. coli outbreak continues to unfold in Germany, U.S. public health officials are boosting surveillance of produce from Germany and Spain.
“Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, sprouts, and lettuce remain suspects for the cause of the outbreak,” said Helena Bottemiller, a spokesperson with the FDA.
“The U.S. has received no shipments of sprouts or sprout seeds from Germany or Spain since at least last October.”
The agency says it is increasing surveillance to include all fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, including salad mixes and prepared salads, and all sprouts and sprout seeds from Germany and Spain.
Jurin has also instructed the Food and Drug Administration to collect samples from imported fruit and vegetables from Europe.
German officials had identified tainted sprouts from a farm in the Uelzen area in the north as the “most convincing” cause, and shut it down while it tested 18 sprout mixtures, including beans, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, garlic, lentils, mung beans and radishes. The sprouts are often used in mixed salads.
Sprouts are typically a prime suspect in any epidemiological investigation of foodborne illness, according the CDC research.
In the last 20 years, contaminated bean sprouts, alfalfa sprouts or other varieties have been blamed for at least 40 significant outbreaks of foodborne illness across the U.S., Canada and Europe.
The German Farmers' Association reports that farmers are losing an estimated 30 million euros in sales per week, as people become wary of raw vegetables.