June 6/Berlin/WebMD Health News -- Health authorities in Germany say that locally grown beansprouts are probably the cause of an outbreak of E. coli that has left several people dead.

The source of the infection has yet to be officially confirmed, with a number of different products cited as a possible cause, including Spanish cucumbers, tomatoes and leafy salads. However, Gert Lindemann, Lower Saxony Agriculture Minister told the Associated Press that 18 different sprout mixtures were currently under suspicion -- including sprouts of beans, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, garlic lentils, mungo beans and radish.

Lindemann urged Germans not to eat sprouts until further notice.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said that 11 people in the U.K. had so far been infected. All had recently returned from Germany.

The continuing search for a cause comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that the outbreak that began in Germany was a new strain called E. coli 0104 that had never been seen before.

Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the WHO, told The Associated Press that, "this is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before."

She added that the new strain has "various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing than the many E. coli strains people naturally carry in their intestines".

Kruse said that it was not unusual for bacteria to continually mutate, evolve and swap genes.

The latest cases in the U.K. involve eight people with bloody diarrhea and three people who have developed the potentially fatal form of the condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

The HPA says that there have been 520 cases of HUS in Germany, with 11 reported deaths. German authorities have also reported 1,213 cases of bloody diarrhea related to the outbreak, with six deaths -- bringing the total number of official reported deaths in Germany to 17.

The HPA is advising people travelling to Germany to avoid eating raw salads. In addition, it advised anyone returning from Germany with illness including bloody diarrhea to seek urgent medical attention and make sure they mention their recent travel history.

The Food Standards Agency said it has found no evidence that produce from possible sources identified with the outbreak had found its way into U.K. food outlets. It said that the European Commission was not yet able to identify the exact source of the contamination.

The outbreak was caused by a rare organism called verocytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC) O104 infection. Reports from Germany refer to the VTEC cases as cases of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC). VTEC is also sometimes called Enterohaemorrhagic E.coli (EHEC).

Other countries have seen cases from the outbreak among people returning from Germany.

Initial reports in Germany blamed Spanish cucumbers for the outbreak. These have not been confirmed, and investigations are continuing with samples of food being taken.

The HPA says that until the sources are found, anyone visiting Germany should avoid raw tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy salad including lettuce, especially in the north of the country.

The HPA in the U.K. is working with the authorities in Germany, the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) over the outbreak.


From the June 6, 2011, Prepared Foods' Daily News.