Following weeks of uncertainty, Germany said Friday that beansprouts are almost certainly the source of the deadly outbreak of E.coli 0104:H4 that has killed 35 and sickened 3,256.
A joint statement from the country’s food safety, disease control and risk assessment agencies declared it had been able to “to narrow down the cause of the outbreak with a high degree of epidemiological certainty to the consumption of sprouts”.
"It's the bean sprouts," said Reinhard Burger, head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) at a news conference.
German officials also lifted previous health warnings against eating cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuces, while warning businesses and consumers that any beansprouts from the Lower Saxony farm at the centre of the investigation be destroyed.
The German bodies confirmed that a multi-agency taskforce would now be set up with European authorities to learn the lessons from the outbreak that has cost dozens of lives, cost farmer hundreds of millions of Euros and dented public confidence in the safety of the region’s food supply chain.
Experts from the RKI said they had been able to confirm the cause of the Shiga toxin-producing bacteria “for the first time” after finding beansprouts were a common denominator in meals consumed by those who later became ill with the EHEC infection.
A ‘recipe-based cohort study’ on 112 subjects who ate at a restaurant showed that “customers who consumed sprouts were 8.6 times more at risk of contracting EHEC/HUS than customers who had not eaten these foods”, said the RKI.
The body added: “It was also possible to establish in this way that the total number of cases included in the study, 100 per cent had eaten sprouts.”
The German Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (BfR) said its own lab tests backed the RKI findings as it said the strain from beansprouts tested was “identical" to the E.coli strain from infected patients.
“This laboratory diagnostics result is another link in the chain of evidence suggesting that raw sprouts have to be considered as an essential source for the EHEC infections of the last weeks and confirms the epidemiological findings”, said BfR president Professor Andreas Hensel.
Some 809 of the victims – around 25 per cent of the total - developed hemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a severe complication affecting the blood, kidneys and nervous system.
German authorities said over the weekend that it was unlikely that legal action would be taken against the farm as it appears to have complied with all food safety regulations.
National agencies confirmed that a task force would now be set up to examine "the causes and consequences of the outbreak". The panel would be made up of representatives from regional and national organisations with Germany, as well as experts from the European Food Safety authority (EFSA) and the European Commission.
Russia also announced Friday that it would be lifting its ban of vegetable imports from the European Union as long as safety measures could be ensured.