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Produce industry monitoring massive foodborne illness outbreak in Germany

by Joan Murphy | June 01, 2011

WASHINGTON — Authorities appear to be backing off early reports that organically grown Spanish cucumbers are the cause of an outbreak from a rare strain of E. coli that has killed at least 15 people and sickened more than 1,500 in Germany.

Hundreds of people have been hospitalized, many with severe kidney problems, as disease trackers believe the massive outbreak is attributed to an unusual E. coli serogroup O104, which has never been detected in the United States.

The early reports of tainted cucumbers from Spain pushed Europeans to block or cancel shipments and increased trade tensions between Spain and Germany.

“It sounds like the same thing that happened here” when the 2008 Salmonella outbreak was erroneously tied to tomatoes but ended up linked to hot peppers, said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh Produce Association.

It sounds like they “jumped the gun a bit” by first announcing that cucumbers may be the cause. “We empathize with our colleagues in Europe,” he added.

Europeans are avoiding vegetables in the wake of the news reports about the outbreak. The Robert Koch Institute in Germany is advising people to avoid eating tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce as the investigation continues.

While there have been no reports of E. coli illnesses in the United States, the Food & Drug Administration is monitoring the situation.

The agency is increasing its sampling of imported produce from countries where there have been reported illnesses and countries where the tainted produce might have been grown, said an FDA spokesman. Any product found to be contaminated with the unusual E. coli strain will be refused entry and future shipments will be detained, he added.

The U.S. produce industry is not expecting to be hard-hit by the European outbreak since very little produce is shipped here, but there is fear that consumers may overreact to the news by avoiding cucumbers or other produce, said David Gombas, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for United Fresh.

Dr. Gombas said that he hopes the incident serves as a reminder to the FDA to be more careful when the agency suspects a produce item but does not have enough evidence to issue a blanket warning.