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German scientists look for E.coli clues in restaurant

posted 4 Jun 2011, 06:35 by Mpelembe   [ updated 4 Jun 2011, 08:16 ]

Experts search for clues to the source of food bug in restaurant in northern German town of Luebeck.

The proprietor of a German meat and potatoes restaurant where a killer E.coli food bug struck said on Saturday (June 4) he was devastated to find out many of his guests were stricken by the rare virulent bacteria.

Joachim Berger told Reuters he was baffled that a group of tax officials got ill after dining at his "Kartoffel-Keller" (Potato Cellar) in the heart of the Baltic Sea port city on May 13 but said none of his staff nor anyone else got sick.

"We haven't been informed in any way that there was something, they (the group of customers who fell ill) left satisfied. But they have stayed in Luebeck for a few days. They have eaten at other places, they have stayed at another hotel and so on. It was a blow to the head when we received the news," Berger said in an interview in the kitchen of his restaurant in Luebeck, 60 km (40 miles) northeast of the outbreak's epicenter in the northern port city of Hamburg. "No evidence or hints that you would proof: There is the bug. No bugs have been found," he added. Berger said health inspectors had been at his restaurant last week but found nothing. More test results are due on Monday.

So far authorities in Germany have yet to pin down the source of the pathogen, which has killed at least 19 people in Europe and made more than 1,700 ill in 12 countries -- all of whom had been travelling in northern Germany.

A German woman, one of the tax officials at the Luebeck restaurant, died after contracting E. coli. Also at the same restaurant, eight tourists from nearby Denmark were also infected, the Luebecker Nachrichten newspaper said on Saturday.

Many who contracted E.coli pathogen have developed the disease haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly complication that can affect the kidneys.

Germany is at the centre of the outbreak but people have also become ill in 10 other European countries and the United States, probably from eating lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers or other raw salad vegetables in Germany.

The World Health Organisation said the strain was a rare one, seen in humans before, but never in this kind of outbreak.

People have also become ill in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and United States.

E.coli bacteria themselves are harmless but the strain making people sick has the ability to stick to intestinal walls where it pumps out toxins, sometimes causing severe bloody diarrhea and kidney problems.

Many patients have gone into hospital, with several needing intensive care, including dialysis due to kidney complications.

The Luebecker Nachrichten newspaper reported scientists identified the local restaurant as a possible spot where the bug was passed on after one person died and 17 others fell sick, including the group of tax officials and Danish tourists.

He said all his employees have undergone testing and no one has any symptoms, such as diarrhea. He added that his restaurant has nevertheless stopped serving raw leafy salad and cucumbers, which the government has linked to the infection. "What is important for me is this uncertainty. I can understand that. I don't want to speculate or draw conclusions. I just hope that, however this germ emerged, that we all don't get big problems afterwards," Berger said.

Werner Solbach, a microbiologist at University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein was quoted by the Luebecker Nachrichten newspaper saying that the restaurant was not to blame, but the supply chain could give important clues about hoe the pathogen was passed along.

The food contamination is believed to have been caused by poor hygiene at a farm, in transit, a shop or food outlet.

Health authorities have repeated warnings to avoid some raw vegetables in northern Germany -- rattling farmers and stores in the high season for salad -- and said 199 new cases of the rare strain of the bacteria had been reported in the past two days.

European health institutes have tried to reassure the public that the spread of E.coli, a frequent cause of food poisoning, can be contained by washing vegetables and hands before eating.