All the deaths have occurred in Germany, where there are 329 confirmed infections, but cases have now spread to the US – where three victims have been identified.
The majority of infections and fatalities have hit women in middle-to-old age, whose kidneys were damaged by toxins after they developed Hemolytic-uremic Syndrome (HUS) following infection by the E.coli (see 'Background').
Most of the infections outside Germany affected Germans travelling abroad or foreigners who have recently been in Germany. All but one of the deaths were recorded in northern Germany, but fears that the outbreak was spreading increased when an elderly woman died in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia yesterday.
Sweden has reported 30 cases out of which 13 developed HUS, Denmark 11 cases (five with HUS), the UK three (two HUS), the Netherlands one HUS case and Austria two STEC cases (see 'Background').
Scientists seek fast answers
Fresh cucumbers from Almeria and Malaga were identified on 26 May as one of the sources of the outbreak, but investigations are ongoing and scientists have not ruled out other potential sources – or contamination during transportation – and test results are expected to give more definitive results tomorrow.
A source within the EU executive said that food safety experts across Europe were communicating with the EU's reference laboratory for the bacterium – based in Rome – to discover how to speed up the process of culturing the bacteria to identify its spread.
The Rome-based laboratory has been finalising a method of shortening the time taken to develop cultures from up to a week down to around 48 hours.
Trade tensions mount over vegetables
Spanish authorities suspended the activities of farms in Almeria and Malaga last week. One suspect consignment of Spanish cucumbers was distributed to Denmark, whose authorities traced and withdrew them from the market. Suspected batches were also redistributed from Germany to Hungary, Austria, France, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic.
Health officials in Germany cautioned the public against eating cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuces and some of these products have been removed from the shelves of shops. Austria has banned the sale of cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines imported via Germany, while Russia has banned the import of some vegetables from Germany and Spain.
Interfax press agency quoted the Russian consumer protection head, Gennady Onishchenko, as warning that "if the situation does not change, then we will ban all European vegetable products".
Diego Lopez Garrido, Spain's secretary of state for European affairs, said "you can't attribute the origin of this sickness to Spain, there is no proof and that's why we are going to demand accountability from those who have blamed Spain for this matter".
Meanwhile, MEPs from the leftist GUE/NGL group yesterday demanded that the Commission make a statement on the spread of the bacterium to the European Parliament's plenary session next week.