x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

European cucumbers are back on shelves

Ministry of Environment and Water scientists find no trace of the bacteria that has killed 17 people across Europe.

People buying vegetables and grocery items at the Lulu hypermarket in Al Barsha in Dubai.
People buying vegetables and grocery items at the Lulu hypermarket in Al Barsha in Dubai.

DUBAI // European cucumbers were back on supermarket shelves in Abu Dhabi yesterday after a second phase of testing found no evidence of E.coli contamination.

The vegetables from Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark were removed hours after the Ministry of Environment and Water imposed a temporary import ban from Wednesday.

However, testing yesterday at the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) laboratories gave the all clear. "Until now we have not found any E.coli on the vegetables we have tested," said Mohammed al Reyaysa, the communications director at the ADFCA.

"We are confident that we are not affected by the E.coli strain that has been reported in Europe."

Other vegetables from the banned list of countries may enter the UAE only if importers present a health certificate stating it is free from E.coli from the country of origin.

The produce then undergoes more testing before being allowed to go on sale.

Dubai Municipality, which had imposed its own ban on imports including tomatoes and lettuce from the same countries on Tuesday, also said no E.coli had been found.

"The issue we have is that there is a lot of confusion and mixed signals coming from authorities in Europe about the source of the contamination," said a spokesman for Dubai Municipality's Food Control Department.

"We are waiting for some more concrete information from international health agencies and then we can act accordingly."

The outbreak of the haemolytic uraemic syndrome - caused by a strain of the E.coli bacteria that produces Shiga toxin - was first reported in Germany four weeks ago. The World Health Organisation said yesterday the strain was previously unknown.

The outbreak has now claimed 17 lives - 16 in Germany and one in Sweden - and made more than 1,500 people ill across the continent.

Chinese scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, who have analysed the strain, said it carried genes that made it resistant to some classes of antibiotics. It was highly toxic and highly infectious, they said.

German health officials initially pointed to Spanish organic cucumbers as the source of contamination but have since admitted they do not now know where it came from.

Speaking to a German parliamentary committee, Reinhard Burger, head of the country's disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), said the precise source may never be found.

The Spanish government is now threatening legal action and is demanding compensation for its farmers. It says they have lost sales worth €200 million (Dh1bn) a week and the scare could put 70,000 people out of work.

Russia imposed a complete import ban on all raw vegetables from the European Union. Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Russian consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor, said the ban was imposed because the situation had not been brought under control.

The European Commission has said it is looking at what it could do about the impact on producers.

The EU's health experts have been horrified at the size and seriousness of the outbreak. Denis Coulombier, head of surveillance and response for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said studies so far showed a strong link between disease symptoms and the consumption of fresh vegetables.

"To have such a high number of severe cases means that probably there was a huge contamination at some juncture. That could have been anywhere from the farm to the fork - in transport, packaging, cleaning, at wholesalers, or retailers - anywhere along that food chain."

nhanif@thenational.ae