After cucumbers, tomatoes and raw meat, the German authorities have found a new culprit to blame for the outbreak of EHEC infection: bean sprouts and other sprouting vegetables such as lentils and beans.
It is vital that the source of the infection is found soon, not least because more than 20 people have already died - mostly in Germany - and over 2,000 have been infected by this new variety of E.coli bacteria.
Here in the Netherlands, vegetable growers have been badly hit. At the moment, the German investigation is concentrating on a farm in Lower Saxony – near the Dutch border – which grows ‘sprouting’ vegetables such as bean sprouts, lentils, and broccoli. While tests are being run, the farm has been closed down and the German health authorities are warning people not to eat bean sprouts or other sprouting vegetables.
Marcel Zietering, professor of food microbiology at the University of Wageningen, is not convinced that bean sprouts are the source of the outbreak.
“It might be a source, but we shouldn’t forget that many possible sources have been named recently. I don’t think it is impossible that this is the cause, but it could also be something else. It is not certain yet.”
Clarity about the cause of the EHEC outbreak is not only important for doctors and patients. Growers need to know too. Last week the sale of cucumbers collapsed and now people are afraid that the new suspect – bean sprouts – will also have consequences for growers, including Dutch ones. Even though, as Willem Baljeu, managing director of the Dutch trade platform Frugi Venta, says, there’s no reason for that.
“What is happening at the moment is disastrous. Not just for Dutch growers, but for the whole fruit and vegetable trade. We have carried out as many tests as we possibly can. After between 400 and 500 tests, no EHEC bacteria have been found in vegetables in the Netherlands.”
Professor Zietering also stresses that the EHEC-outbreak is mainly a German problem. He thinks there is no reason for panic in the Netherlands or other countries.
“I am only concerned for people in Germany. We should watch out that we don’t start acting irrationally in the Netherlands. For instance, we can continue to eat bean sprouts. The outbreak is in northern Germany. There is something going on there. Whichever product is named, the risk in other countries remains low.”
Hungary which currently chairs the European Union, has announced agriculture ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety (VWA) authority has announced tests on bean sprouts grown in the Netherlands. Earlier on Monday the authority said tests were not necessary. Now it says: “we want to be on the safe side.”