E. coli O104:H4 Outbreak in Germany

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

The produce industry in Europe has been affected by an outbreak of food-borne illness from a new strain of E. coli (O104:H4) which has sickened over 400 adults and killed 19. Recommendations have been for German consumers to stop eating produce or to cook produce. Particularly hard hit are growers of produce consumed fresh. Produce sales have been so hard hit in countries such as Spain that the EU is considering an aid program to compensate farmers for losses.

Originally, German officials blamed cucumbers from Spain because they found toxic E. coli on cucumbers imported from that country. However, the strain found in those who were sickened did not match the strain found on Spanish cucumbers. Currently, no other potential source has been identified, but salad items are suspected.

New toxic strains of E. coli have been emerging throughout the world. Bacteria are well adapted to exchange genetic material and a previously non-toxic organism can become toxic by picking up genes for toxin production from another bacteria. Some of these toxic strains are particularly dangerous because they can shut down the kidneys of persons infected.

Produce growers in the US and locally, especially direct marketers, may be asked by customers about this outbreak and the potential for it being found in US grown produce. This new strain in Europe has not been found in the US food supply and consumers should not be concerned.

However, growers should be aware that toxic strains of E. coli (O157:H7) do exist in this region. The major source is fecal matter from animals (domestic and wild such as cattle and deer) and irrigation water contaminated with fecal matter. Growers should take all precautions to avoid or eliminate contamination of produce from these sources.


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