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Warning lifted against Spanish cucumbers suspected in E. coli outbreak

By Al Goodman, CNN
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Spain lashes out over E. coli crisis
  • NEW: The European Commission lifts its health warning against Spanish cucumbers
  • "It's not our products," Spanish official insists
  • Media report 16 deaths linked to the outbreak, including 1 in Sweden
  • The specific source has not been pinpointed

Madrid (CNN) -- The European Commission on Wednesday rescinded its health warning against cucumbers from Spain, according to a statement from the Spanish Health Ministry.

Spanish officials have been denying accusations that their country was the cause of a deadly E. coli outbreak that has swept across Germany and Sweden.

The health warning was lifted after Spanish authorities shared negative test results on the produce in question with the commission, the statement noted.

Last week, German officials implied Spanish cucumbers were the cause of an illness that has sickened more than 1,000 people. The outbreak is responsible for 15 deaths in Germany and one in Sweden, according to media reports citing local authorities. CNN has confirmed at least 12 deaths including the one in Sweden, a woman who had recently visited Germany.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Spain will not rule out "taking action against the authorities (in Germany) who questioned the quality of our products." He was speaking in an SER radio interview.

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The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's federal unit responsible for disease control and prevention, has reported 1,064 cases of E. coli infection, and 470 cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious complication that can result from E. coli.

Rubalcaba later responded forcefully to the accusation that the outbreak originated with produce from Spain after chairing a meeting of government officials and fresh produce exporters Wednesday in the southern city of Almeria.

"What we ask of Germany is get to the bottom of this," Rubalcaba told a nationally televised news conference after the meeting. "The country most interested in knowing the truth is Spain. It's not our products. All of the people who are affected are in Hamburg or were in Hamburg, so it seems the problem is there."

"The proof is that there are no cases in Spain. If the bacteria came from Spain, we would see infections. Our products are absolutely clean, our cucumbers in this case. It's not a problem of the origin of the products," Rubalcaba said.

"If it was from the cucumbers, there would be cases (of illness) in Spain," Rubalcaba said, adding that there haven't been. "The Hamburg (Germany) authorities don't know where it comes from. I understand they have a problem. We have said, 'You need to say it wasn't us.' "

While authorities in Germany worked to contain and respond to the outbreak, the specific cause remained unclear.

The European Food Safety Alert Network said EHEC, or enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli, a strain of E. coli that causes hemorrhaging in the intestines, was found in organic cucumbers originating from Spain, packaged in Germany and distributed to countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg and Spain.

But the source has not yet been pinpointed, authorities said.

Spanish officials and export producers have talked publicly of demanding compensation from Germany or the European Union. The produce export sector says it stands to lose $290 million a week, as consumer fears over cucumbers have spread to most European countries, largely stopping imports of Spanish produce, including tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables.

Rubalcaba told the news conference there'll be time to talk about demands for proper compensation but added, "It's evident they have endangered the jobs of many people without proof. We know (the infection) is a serious problem, but the Spanish products have nothing to do with that crisis."

Health officials in Hamburg, where many remain hospitalized from the infection, said Thursday that Spanish cucumbers appeared to carry the E. coli. But on Tuesday, they said two of the three Spanish cucumbers tested showed they did not carry the E. coli strain that has caused the health problems, while a third Spanish cucumber and another cucumber of unknown origin were still being tested.

Spanish media reported that as a significant backtracking by Germany.

The export producers federation Fepex issued a statement Wednesday saying the "priority now is to return to normal in the European markets for fruits and vegetables and re-establish confidence in Spanish products after Germany corrected itself on Tuesday and removed Spanish cucumbers as the origin of the lethal strain of E. coli."

Germany is the top purchaser of Spain's produce, according to Fepex. In 2010, Spain exported 9.4 million tons of produce; a quarter of that went to Germany, Fepex said. Fresh produce exports had $11 billion in revenue overall in 2010.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen and Eileen Hsieh contributed to this report.