Spanish cucumbers 'in the clear'
Germany admits vegetable not to blame for mystery bug that has killed 16 people
After days of angry recriminations that threatened to spark new inter-Europe trade wars, the German authorities conceded last night that Spanish cucumbers were not, after all, to blame for a mystery illness which has claimed the lives of 16 people and infected more than 1,200 others.
And as Irish retailers removed Spanish organic cucumbers from their shelves, the search to find the source of the infection has been stepped up. Scientists said vegetables such as spinach or salads remained a likely cause because of animal manure used as fertiliser. The German state agriculture secretary Robert Kloos admitted that tests revealed that Spanish cucumbers did not carry the enterohaemorrhagic E coli (EHEC) -- an unusual, toxic strain of the common E coli bacterium.
"Germany recognises that the Spanish cucumbers are not the cause," he said at an EU farm ministers meeting in Hungary.
The Spanish agriculture minister Rosa Aguilar criticised the German response, after a regional ministerial colleague from Andalusia appeared on television to eat a cucumber, in the hope of convincing the continent that they were safe.
"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.
Denmark, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden and Belgium have stopped importing Spanish produce while Germany itself has told consumers to stop eating it.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) said it was liaising with the European Commission and that, based on information to date, none of the implicated cucumbers had been distributed to Ireland.
Although SuperValu, Dunnes Stores and Lidl had withdrawn some Spanish organic cucumbers from sale in Irish stores, this was a voluntary action, as they were not from the suppliers named by the German authorities, the FSAI said. "It is important to note that there have been no reported cases of human illness in Ireland associated with the German outbreak strain of E coli. Consumers do not need to be concerned," said FSAI chief executive Professor Alan Reilly.
A Lidl spokesman said: "Should any customer wish to return this product if they feel uncertain about consuming it, Lidl will provide a full refund at any of its stores."
SuperValu said it had withdrawn Spanish organic cucumbers from sale at 22 stores on Friday and put up signs warning customers who might have bought some to bin them.
"We will always act on the side of caution and in the interest of our customers to ensure top quality, safe produce at all times," it said in a statement.
E coli has been responsible for a large number of food contamination outbreaks in a wide variety of countries and in most cases it causes non-lethal stomach ailments.
But EHEC causes more severe symptoms in which the infection attacks the kidneys and can cause seizures, strokes and comas.