BERLIN Officials investigating an organic farm in northern Germany said on Saturday they do not expect to take legal action against it for causing an E.coli outbreak that has killed at least 31 people.
Authorities link the epidemic, the deadliest in modern history, to contaminated bean sprouts and shoots grown at the farm that made their way to restaurants and kitchens across the country.
"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.
"No matter how you look at it we don't see any fault with the farm or legal ground to hold them accountable," he said by telephone. "You cannot punish someone for having bad luck."
However 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.
The German government had come under fire at home and around Europe for failing to pin down the cause of the month-long outbreak, which only on Friday was officially identified as having come from the bean sprouts.
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.
About a quarter of the near 3,000 people sick from E.coli have developed a severe complication from the bacteria called haemolytic uraemic syndrome, or HUS, which affects the blood, kidneys and nervous system.
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.
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.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)