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E.coli focus baffles German restaurant owner

The proprietor of a German meat-and-potatoes restaurant where a killer E.coli food bug may have struck said on Saturday he was devastated to hear many of his guests were infected.
Vegetables are offered at a greengrocer's shop in Hamburg.
Vegetables are offered at a greengrocer's shop in Hamburg, Germany.Fabian Bimmer / REUTERS
/ Source: Reuters

The proprietor of a German meat-and-potatoes restaurant where a killer E.coli food bug may have struck said on Saturday he was devastated to hear many of his guests were infected by the rare virulent bacteria.

"It was like a blow to the head when I heard the news," Joachim 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.

"We had everyone here tested and everything was disinfected. I paid for the tests myself because safety is important for our guests and employees," he told Reuters.

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 traveling in northern Germany.

But the Luebecker Nachrichten newspaper reported scientists had identified the local restaurant as a possible spot where the bug was passed on after one person died and 17 others fell sick, including a group of tax officials as well as Danish tourists and a child from southern Germany on a separate family outing.

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

Berger said he was baffled as to why the tax officials fell ill after dining at his "Kartoffel-Keller" (Potato Cellar) in the heart of the Baltic Sea port city on May 13. He said none of his staff or anyone else had gotten sick.

A German woman, who was one of the tax officials who dined there, died after contracting E.coli. Eight tourists from nearby Denmark who ate at the same restaurant were also infected, the newspaper said.

Many of those infected have developed the disease haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a potentially deadly complication that can affect the kidneys.

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

An employee of Czech center of national reference laboratories prepares samples of vegetables for molecular testing on EHEC bacteria in Brno
An employee of Czech center of national reference laboratories prepares samples of vegetables for molecular testing on EHEC bacteria (bacterium Escherichia coli.) in Brno June 1, 2011. REUTERS/David W CernyDavid W Cerny / X01548

E.coli bacteria usually 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 diarrhoea and kidney problems.

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

HEALTH INSPECTORS FOUND NOTHING

Berger said health inspectors came to his restaurant last week but found nothing. More test results are due on Monday.

"We had a group of women here from the tax authorities and they ate a la carte," he told Reuters. "They enjoyed their meal. But the group was in town for quite a few days and also ate elsewhere."

"None of our employees is sick," he added. "No diarrhoea. And they all eat salad and everything we have here."

"The restaurant is not to blame," Werner Solbach, a microbiologist at University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein, told the Luebeck newspaper.

"However, the supply chain could give us important clues about how the pathogen was passed along."

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

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.

The chief doctor for hygiene at Berlin's Vivantes hospital said it was conceivable that the spread of the bacteria had been deliberate and urged authorities to examine that possibility.

"It's quite possible that there's a crazy person out there who thinks 'I'll kill a few people or give 10,000 people diarrhoea'," Klaus-Dieter Zastrow told Bild newspaper. "It's a negligent mistake not to investigate in that direction."

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.