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Battle to trace source of E coli outbreak

FIRST, the outbreak of E coli in Germany was blamed on cucumbers. Then beansprouts were suspected. Then doubt was cast on the beansprouts theory.

Some began to question the reality of Germany's legendary efficiency. But there is nothing trivial or comical about E coli, a highly unpleasant and sometimes fatal condition of which we in Ireland have had too much experience. Luckily, most of the outbreaks here were not serious, whereas the German incident has already caused 22 deaths and at least 2,000 other infections.

Health and agriculture officials in the state of Lower Saxony continue to believe strongly that they have identified the source, a farm south of Hamburg. Numerous cases have been reported of persons falling ill -- and one of a woman dying -- after eating beansprouts that supposedly originated on the farm.

Still, the German authorities are right to insist on making certain. No useful purpose is served by over-reaction, either internally or as seen in the extraordinary decision by Russia to ban European Union vegetables.

Trade in the present era is conducted at such lightning speed, in such enormous volume and over such vast distances that the spread of a questionable product is immensely difficult to check. It is less difficult to trace, thanks to strict legislation that helps to identify sources.

It is unfortunate that this outbreak has been accompanied by loss of life, but it will be overcome.