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"It's the bean sprouts," said Reinhard Burger, head of the German Centre for Disease Control, on Friday (10 June), confirming that the salad vegetable was the common denominator among the thousands who had fallen sick.
But subsequent investigations into the organic farm have convinced the authorities that nothing went wrong in the way the vegetables were produced.
"Everything we have looked into until now shows the farm was flawless," said Gert Hahne, spokesman for the consumer protection office of Lower Saxony state. "It is hygienic and followed all the regulations," he declared.
"No matter how you look at it we don't see any fault with the farm or legal ground to hold them accountable," Hahne said by telephone, adding: "You cannot punish someone for having bad luck."
The authorities said on Friday it was now safe to eat tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy salads, food originally suspected as the source, but bean sprouts should be avoided while studies continued.
Farm shut down
The farm has been shut down. Authorities say results of tests taken there have yet to place E.coli on site, but that some 500 samples are still being examined – including some from the farm's seeds, which came from Europe and Asia.
Scientists said then that traces of the deadly strain were detected in a packet of bean sprouts from the farm found in a family's rubbish bin after two of the family members fell ill from eating them. The results were confirmed on Saturday.
Authorities warn that the particularly virulent outbreak is still a threat, and the death toll may rise despite signs of a slowdown in new infections.
36 people have now died as a result of the infection, which sickened over 3,000 people, mainly in Germany.
Late on Friday, Health Minister Daniel Bahr responded to mounting criticism over the handling of the outbreak, telling broadcaster ZDF that information should have been shared sooner.
Several scientists say the investigation should have focused on bean sprouts earlier.
Russia set to end EU vegetable ban import
Meanwhile, Russia agreed on Friday to lift a ban on vegetable imports from the European Union if the EU provides safety guarantees, clearing the way to ending a row over a fatal outbreak of E.coli in Europe (eee coverage on EUX.TV).
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told a news conference after a Russia-EU summit that the EU would issue the required safety certificates later on Friday or on Saturday.
"We are happy that we have agreed that the ban on vegetables from the European Union will be lifted," Barroso said.
President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed this would happen in the "nearest future" if the safety guarantees were received. "I think this is a good result," he said after the meeting in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.
Moscow imposed the ban to prevent the spread of E.coli. Thirty people, all but one of them in Germany, have been killed by the disease. It starts with stomach bug symptoms and can develop into haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which destroys red blood cells and causes severe kidney problems.
EurActiv with Reuters