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European Officials Race To Find Source Of E. Coli

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

There's a major mystery going on in Europe, right now. Health officials are trying to find the source of the e.coli outbreak that has killed at least 17 people. The World Health Organization said, today, the new mutant bacteria strain has never been seen before. Russia has banned the import of all vegetables from the European Union in an attempt to keep the outbreak from crossing its borders. At first, Germany said the culprit was Spanish cucumbers, but that turned out to be wrong. As Teri Schultz explains, the outbreak has had a major impact on the Spanish economy and on consumers as well.

TERI SCHULTZ: Now that German tests have revealed the killer bacteria did not come from Spanish cucumbers, the European Union has taken them off the official watch list. But you wouldnt know it from hanging out by the cucumber section in my local grocery store in a Brussels suburb, where the vegetables, though clearly identified as coming from Belgium, has few takers.

Ms. FRANSCESCA MASI: Yeah, obviously no one wants to die!

SCHULTZ: Shopper Francesca Masi chooses eggplant instead, saying she doesnt like cucumbers anyway but wouldnt trust them right now no matter what. Tomas Mayer, shopping for his family, says because of the scare, hes not eating any vegetables that arent cooked.

How long will it be before you feel safe again?

Mr. TOMAS MAYER: I dont know, I really dont know. When really everything is over and they can convince us that its over. Ive got two kids at home I have to be careful.

SCHULTZ: Stephanie and Craig Burchell arent so concerned about cucumbers, but...

Ms. STEPHANIE BURCHELL: Where is the true e.coli infection? And thats the worrying thing, that we actually dont know yet.

Mr. CRAIG BURCHELL: The Germans should go and track the e.coli in Germany, find out where it comes from instead of blaming the Spanish farmers.

SCHULTZ: Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar agrees, saying the erroneous accusations cost her country some 200 million euros - or more than $287 million per week - in lost sales and that Berlin is to blame.

Ms. ROSA AGUILAR (Spanish Agriculture Minister): (Foreign language spoken)

SCHULTZ: We demand responsibility from Germany, she says, for these unfair damages wrongfully caused to our products. We will look for Spanish trade to be rightfully compensated.

In the meantime, Belgian shopper, Chantal Ochenen, notes the price of cucumbers has hit rock bottom - to her benefit.

Ms. CHANTAL OCHENEN: (Foreign language spoken)

SCHULTZ: She happily picks up two.

Ms. OCHENEN: Voila!

SCHULTZ: For NPR News, Im Teri Schultz.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.