Europe trades blame over deadly E.coli in Germany

European governments traded accusations of blame on Tuesday as they scrambled to find the source of an E....

Map of Germany

European governments traded accusations of blame on Tuesday as they scrambled to find the source of an E. coli outbreak that has killed 16 people and made more than 1,000 ill in Germany, Sweden and other countries.

The killer bacteria was first linked to contaminated Spanish cucumbers imported into Germany, but German officials admitted on Tuesday that latest tests showed the cucumbers did not carry the dangerous bacteria strain connected to the outbreak.

"Germany recognises that the Spanish cucumbers are not the cause," German state secretary for agriculture Robert Kloos said on the sidelines of an EU farm ministers meeting in Hungary.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said shipments of cucumbers and other food grown in Spain were being investigated by U.S. health officials anyway.

"Due to the information received about the outbreak in Germany, FDA is flagging shipments of cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce from Spain for further inspection," said Doug Karas, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The outbreak, one of the largest of its kind, has already caused diplomatic tensions between Germany, Spain, France and Russia. Moscow has banned some vegetable imports and threatening to extend the ban to the whole European Union. Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar criticised Germany's original response.

"Germany accused Spain of being responsible for the E.coli contamination in Germany, and it did it with no proof, causing irreparable damage to the Spanish production sector," she said.

Spanish media reported Germany, Denmark, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden, Belgium and Russia are blocking entry of Spanish cucumbers.

The exact source of the virulent strain of the bacteria is still not known. Scientists said the suspicions about vegetables or salads being a possible source were well-founded since cattle manure used in fertiliser can harbour E. coli.

"E. coli can attach to the surface of many fresh produce, such as lettuce leaves, spinach leaves and cucumber. These type of E.coli survive harsher environmental conditions than...and produce some nasty toxins to humans," said Brendan Wren of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Health experts at the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease prevention and Control (ECDC), which monitors disease in the EU, have identified the disease as hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious complication of a type of E. coli known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).

SPANISH LOSSES

Spanish farmers say they are losing around 200 million euros (173 million pounds) per week in lost sales. Aguilar said Madrid would be asking "for extraordinary measures to compensate for the huge losses imposed on the Spanish sector."

The outbreak, which started in mid-May, has so far made more than 1,000 people ill in Germany as well as people from Spain, Sweden, Britain, Denmark, France and the Netherlands who had recently been in Germany.

One U.S. tourist has been hospitalised in the Czech Republic with symptoms of E. coli infection after having visited Germany.

In a further sign of growing tension in Europe, French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand demanded greater transparency from Spain and Germany after three people in France became ill.

"At first the German authorities were categorical," he said. "Today there are more and more questions arising. I want to know the origin (of the contamination)," he told France 2 television.

"We need completely transparent information from the German authorities, and from the Spanish authorities as well.

In Brussels, the European Commission said "efforts to pinpoint all possible sources of contamination are well under way and have already yielded preliminary results. It would, therefore, consider any ban on any product as disproportionate."

In the Netherlands, a Dutch horticulture group said exports of cucumbers to Germany, the most important market, had all but halted and its farmers were losing millions of euros.

HUS affects the blood, kidneys and, in severe cases, the nervous system and can be particularly serious for children and the elderly. In an average year, around 60 cases of HUS are reported in Germany, the government said.