German officials are no closer to finding the source of the deadly E coli outbreak that has killed 22 people, after admitting it might not be the bean sprouts that they blamed only 24 hours earlier.
After incorrectly blaming Spanish cucumbers, German officials said on Sunday that the source was almost certainly a bean sprout farm in Lower Saxony, in northern Germany.
However, yesterday afternoon German officials admitted that 23 of the 40 samples being tested from the alleged source had proved negative, though it insisted that the suspect farm was still a possible source.
The owner of the farm, 40 miles south of Hamburg, had said he was baffled at being implicated, and said his sprouts were grown with nothing more than water and seeds.
The confusion and slow response from German officials is coming under increasing scrutiny as doctors battle to contain what has already become the worst E coli outbreak in living memory, surpassing the 17 killed in Japan in 1996.
More than 2,200 have fallen ill, with 22 fatalities. The Health Protection Agency in Britain said last night there had been no further cases in the country since Friday last week, leaving the total number of people seriously ill at 11.
The Lower-Saxony state agriculture ministry last night claimed that 23 of 40 samples from the farm have tested negative for the "super-toxic" strain of the bacteria. It said tests were still under way on the other 17 sprout samples.
"The search for the outbreak's cause is very difficult as several weeks have passed since its suspected start," the ministry said.
Negative test results on sprout batches now, however, do not mean that previous sprout batches were not contaminated.
It also emerged yesterday that Spanish farmers are pursuing compensation from Germany.
The farmers claim that they have lost millions of euros in business, after having to destroy piles of unsold vegetables, as concerned consumers stopped eating Spanish produce.
European farm ministers have convened an emergency meeting in Luxembourg today to discuss compensation. EU spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said the EU Commission "will propose concrete measures of compensation".
Spanish farmers said that there were no signs that business was recovering, even though German officials admitted last week that Spain was not to blame. Antonio Moreno, who helps run a farmers organisation in Almeria in southern Spain, said: "We are indignant, angry, furious. I've had a farmer on the phone to me this morning saying that he cannot sell a single kilo of his summer tomatoes and he has had to ask for help to tear all the plants up." (© Daily Telegraph, London)