06/06/2011 05:31 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2011

Mixed Messages Over E. Coli Outbreak Could Make Crisis Worse

NEW YORK -- The conflicting claims over the source of the deadliest E. coli outbreak in living memory have not only confused consumers around the globe, they have helped exacerbate the crisis, say food safety experts.

At first, German officials incorrectly blamed Spanish cucumbers for the outbreak, which has resulted in 22 dead and more than 2,200 ill throughout Europe. Then they withdrew those claims, saying the source was almost certainly an organic bean sprout farm in northern Germany.

Alarmist headlines threatened to upend the growing market for organic produce and shocked consumers who favor those fruits and vegetables that promise to be healthier and safer than produce grown on industrial farms.

And on Monday, agriculture officials in Germany announced that the first 23 samples tested from the alleged source farm -- mixtures of beans, broccoli, peas and other vegetables -- had proven negative, though they cautioned that the suspect farm is still a possible source. "The search for the outbreak's cause is very difficult as several weeks have passed since its suspected start," said the agricultural ministry of Lower Saxony.

The officials' shifting stories have caused political turmoil in Europe, with Spanish farmers demanding millions in compensation from Germany for unsold vegetables they were forced to destroy in the wake of initial reports. Antonio Moreno, who helps run a farmers organization in Almeria in southern Spain, told reporters, "We are indignant, angry, furious and everything else imaginable."

And some U.S. food scientists say that the latest tests are no consolation and could provide false reassurance to some consumers.

"This test proves nothing -- testing in outbreak investigations is only meaningful if you're looking at the implicated lots." Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The Huffington Post. He said only by tracing back the infected items to a single supplier can scientists determine the likely cause of the outbreak.

"What we see right here is a very erratic outbreak investigation -- it lacks focus and lacks priority," Osterholm said. The confusion, he said, can harm people who could become ill while the products are still out on shelves, the agricultural industry of the European Union and the credibility of the public health system.

Germany defended itself against accusations that it was too quick to blame Spanish cucumbers during an E.U. health ministers meeting Monday in Luxembourg. "The virus is so aggressive that we had to check every track," said Health State Secretary Annette Widmann-Mauz.

Sprouts have been a common culprit in such outbreaks -- they have been linked to some 30 outbreaks in the past 15 years. In the previous worst case in Japan in 1996, 12 people died and more than 9,000 fell ill from tainted radish sprouts. Sprouts are grown in hot, humid conditions, which is also an ideal breeding ground for e. coli bacteria.

Yet scientists caution that it's too early to blame the organic growing methods used at the suspect farm in Germany without doing more tests. Cow manure and farm slurry are likely sources of E. coli, but the bacteria may also have been in the bean seeds, the water used to irrigate the fields or from workers on the farm.

Organic farmers are concerned that the uncertainty could cause a backlash against their products. “It’s certainly troubling to us that organics were fingered as the culprit -- that’s what sticks in people’s mind,” Don Franczyk, the executive director of Bay State Organics in Massachusetts, a not-for-profit group that certifies organic produce in the Northeast, told the Nashua Tribune.

Though sales of organic food have declined in Europe, it's not yet clear what the effect will be on the $25 billion U.S. market.