'It is the sprouts'Weeks into an E. coli outbreak that’s killed 31 people, Germany’s health department is saying that sprouts are to blame.

“It is the sprouts,” Reinhard Burger, president of the Robert Koch Institute, said during a June 10 press conference.

Earlier in the week, the department blamed sprouts and then reversed its decision, but Burger said tests narrowed the focus to sprouts, according to The Guardian. The announcement clears tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens and other vegetables, which German officials had cautioned consumers against eating.

The E. coli outbreak, one of the largest and deadliest on record, has stirred concern across the U.S. food industry, though fresh produce representatives said they’ve seen little effect on demand here and emphasized Americans should feel safe eating fruits and vegetables.

The tainted sprouts as of June 9 sickened nearly 3,000 and led to the deaths of at least 31 people, many of whom suffered kidney failure. On June 10, German authorities warned against eating bean and seed sprouts.

The World Health Organization has the most recent information on the outbreak.

But U.S. consumers don’t appear to be cutting purchases of fresh produce, according to food retailers and distributors reached in early June.

Most of the U.S. produce supply is grown domestically or shipped from Canada and Mexico, and although the Food and Drug Administration stepped up surveillance of fresh European tomatoes, cucumbers and sprouts, little is imported from there.

“We have not seen a decline in consumer purchasing for fresh produce at our stores,” said Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets, which operates 1,036 stores in the Southeast U.S.

Publix “will continue to closely monitor” the outbreak, though it does not buy any produce from Europe, Brous said.

U.S. regulators also sought to bolster consumer confidence.

“Produce remains safe, and there is no reason for Americans to alter where they shop, what they buy or what they eat,” according to an FDA statement.

Nonetheless, the outbreak underscores a number of serious worries for the U.S. produce business. Lettuce and spinach tainted with rare but highly toxic E. coli strains, similar to the type believed to be behind Germany’s outbreak, have sickened hundreds in the U.S. over the past five years.

Produce growers also fear being wrongly implicated, such as in a string of 2008 salmonella illnesses that were initially tied to tomatoes but then traced to peppers from Mexico.

There are “extremely high levels of concern” in the U.S., even as the source of Germany’s outbreak appears isolated in the northern part of that country, said Trevor Suslow, researcher at the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis.

If certain U.S. produce items are even suspected in an outbreak, “you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income while they’re trying to figure it out,” he added.

Losses to domestic tomato sales in 2008 were estimated to be at $140 million.

In terms of the number of illnesses and deaths, Germany’s outbreak is far worse than any ever recorded in the U.S.

Suslow said the U.S. food safety system is better prepared to identify outbreaks, partly because of a centralized electronic tracking and data-sharing network that quickly raises an alert on the location and number of illnesses, especially clusters of related infections.

Some cautioned against overconfidence, including Bruce Peterson, who previously managed Wal-Mart Stores’ perishables operations and is now an independent consultant. Peterson said it would be unfair to characterize the U.S. food supply as safer than Europe’s.

There is “a tremendous amount of work” needed in epidemiology, the study of the causes and control of diseases, to better understand E. coli, Peterson said.

“The produce industry here in the United States and around the world has to continue to be vigilant in the area of epidemiology.”