E. coli outbreak: EU ministers to hold crisis talks

EU agriculture ministers are to hold emergency talks, as efforts continue to find the source of an E.coli outbreak which has killed 22 people.

The first tests on bean sprouts from a German farm suspected of being the source of the outbreak were negative.

Of 40 samples examined from the farm in Uelzen, south of Hamburg, the first 23 tested negative, officials said.

More than 2,200 people have fallen ill in 12 countries. Cases outside Germany have been linked to travel there.

Initially, German officials had pointed to Spanish cucumbers as the likely cause, but that later proved false.
Spain's warning

In Luxembourg, the EU agriculture ministers will want to know how close experts are to identifying the source, amid mounting criticism of the investigation into the outbreak, the BBC's Europe correspondent Chris Morris reports.He says that the meeting will also consider the sensitive issue of compensation for farmers - and harsh words may well be exchanged.

Spain says it is demanding 100% compensation from Germany for huge losses suffered by its vegetable farmers because of a false accusation.

Spain's fruit and vegetables exporters association has estimated losses at 225m euros (£200m) a week.

The EU ministers are also expected to address a Russian ban on imports of fresh produce from the EU, introduced in response to the outbreak.

Other EU countries also say that their farmers will need financial help after sales and prices plummeted.

So, the outbreak will be testing European solidarity once again, our correspondent adds.
Aggressive strain

On Monday, Germany's Lower Saxony agriculture ministry said that "investigations are continuing", as as it announced that the first tests had proved negative.

It added that it did not expect "any short-term conclusions", and that given the complex testing procedure, the remaining 17 samples may not be returned for a few more days.

The organic farm in Uelzen is about 100km (62 miles) south of Hamburg, the epicentre of the outbreak. It produces bean sprouts including adzuki, alfalfa, broccoli, peas, lentils and mung beans, all grown in a nursery for consumption in salads.

The farm's general manager, Klaus Verbeck, was quoted by the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper as saying that he could not see how it was to blame.

"I can't understand how the processes we have here and the accusations could possibly fit together," said Mr Verbeck.

"The salad sprouts are grown only from seeds and water, and they aren't fertilised at all. There aren't any animal fertilisers used in other areas on the farm either."

The strain of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) involved in the outbreak is normally transmitted through faeces or faecal bacteria.

Scientists say it is an aggressive hybrid strain toxic to humans and not previously linked to food poisoning.

Hundreds of those affected by the bacterium have developed haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS), which can be fatal.

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