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Panic spreads among Spanish producers over summer harvest

03 June 2011

Adi Argov, CEO of Top Seeds Iberica, has told FP Express he and other vegetable producers in Spain are 'very worried' about how the E-coli outbreak will affect the summer harvest over July, August and September

The repercussions across Europe are causing panic among Spanish food producers who fear their summer harvest - the most important of the year - may be badly affected. Already, 22 people have died and hundreds are seriously ill.

Adi Argov, CEO of Top Seeds Iberica, has told FP Express he is particularly concerned as anger is growing over the crisis.

Scenes of Spanish farmers dumping their unsold vegetables outside the German Embassy has increased concerns that the situation may spiral out of control.

Although Germany says it regrets the impact on Spanish producers, losses of more than €200m a week have been estimated, and the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he would seek damages.

The debacle started when Germany blamed Spanish cucumbers for the E-Coli outbreak, even though Europe is struggling to identify the true source of the outbreak.

Subsequent reports from the BBC show a farm in northern Germany has been identified as the most likely source of many of the infections in the E. coli outbreak. The farm, producing bean sprouts, is located in Uelzen, south of Hamburg, the epicentre of the outbreak that has made more than 2,000 people ill.

Nick Jacobs, Brussels-based policy specialist at Informa Agra, a leading information service on soft commodities, food and agricultural policy, said: “Preliminary test results in Germany last week pinpointed Spanish cucumbers as a source of the deadly E.coli outbreak.

“However, further tests have now confirmed the E.coli strain found on the cucumbers was not the strain which is responsible for the deadly outbreak.

“EU member states are now clashing over who and what is to blame for the German E.coli outbreak which is being linked to up to 16 deaths and hundreds of hospitalisations in Germany and other northern European member states.

“Furthermore, the original test results from Germany sparked import restrictions in a host of member states and a furious reaction from Spain. Spanish sources claim exports worth up to €200 million have already been lost due to the bans.

“Now the question being asked is: who will pay? EU officials told reporters further analysis would be needed in order to judge whether member states had acted disproportionately in restricting Spanish produce.”

Meanwhile, Thermo Fisher Scientific says it has responded to the E. coli O104 crisis in Europe by increasing production and distribution of its Brilliance ESBL Agar plate, a chromogenic screening plate for the detection of Extended Spectrum Beta-Lactamase-producing (ESBL) organisms, such as the outbreak strain, within 24 hours.

With worldwide concern over E. coli O104, food microbiologists need to ensure they can detect enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) in foods, water and food processing environments in order to prevent, investigate or combat outbreaks of EHEC-related food poisoning.

The current outbreak highlights the importance of rapid and reliable identification of EHEC, which cause bloody diarrhoea and haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), for the assurance of food safety. This large outbreak is unusual in several other ways.

Historically, most outbreaks of HUS have been associated with E. coli O157, but the current outbreak strain belongs to the E. coli O104 serogroup.

The causative strain produces Shiga toxin 2 and shows high resistance to 3rd generation cephalosporins (due to ESBL resistance mechanism), as well as broad antimicrobial resistance to, among others, trimethoprim/sulphonamide and tetracycline (ref 1.).

Media to detect ESBL are among the methods recommended when screening for the outbreak strain.

When undertaking identification of the outbreak strain from food samples, by using Oxoid and Remel products (Thermo Fisher Scientific), you have the reassurance of products that have been developed by scientists with a heritage in microbiology. Our range includes:

· Culture on Oxoid Brilliance ESBL Agar can help determine the resistance status of an isolate

· Enrichment in Oxoid Modified Tryptone Soya Broth with Novobiocin, Oxoid E.C. Broth with or without reduced bile salts or Oxoid Buffered Peptone Water supplemented with antibiotics

· Isolation media such as Oxoid MacConkey Agar

· Toxin detection using the Oxoid VTEC-RPLA kit, following growth on Oxoid Brain Heart Infusion Agar

· Antimicrobial susceptibility testing on Oxoid Iso-Sensitest Agar or Mueller-Hinton Agar with cefpodoxime combination discs. Culture on Oxoid Brilliance ESBL Agar can also help determine the resistance status of an isolate.

· Identification using the DuPont Qualicon RiboPrinter® microbial characterization system (which is available from representatives of Oxoid products in Europe, Canada and Australia).

EHEC/HUS outbreak
The EHEC outbreak in northern Germany is one of the largest outbreaks of EHEC/HUS to have occurred in the world. Many cases have been admitted to hospital suffering bloody diarrhoea and HUS. Patients with HUS may require intensive care, dialysis and/or plasmapheresis, which puts severe strain on hospital resources (ref 1).

The age and sex distribution of this outbreak is atypical, with the majority of cases occurring in young to middle aged women. Cases of HUS resulting from EHEC are normally associated with children under 5 years of age and show no sex bias (ref 1).

On 2 June 2011, there were 470 confirmed cases in Germany of which 17 had died, with many more cases reported in other parts of Europe, including Sweden (15 cases, including one death), Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK (ref 2).

Haemolytic uraemic syndrome is usually associated with the consumption of raw/undercooked meat or unpasteurized milk. This particular outbreak was linked to the consumption of raw salad vegetables, and Russia has banned importation of fresh vegetables from Europe, although the actual source in now in doubt (ref 2.).

1. Frank C, Faber MS, Askar M et al (2011) Euro Surveill 16(21):pii=19878
2. BBC News 2nd June 2011

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