The Small Farm at the Center of a Huge Disease Outbreak

The German e. coli outbreak has been traced to a tiny property in a tranquil region

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When farmer Klaus Verbeck got into the bean sprout game, perhaps he was attracted to a pastoral lifestyle of quiet musings among his crops. If so, that tranquility has gone out the window now that sprouts from his tiny organic farm, Gaertnerhof Bienenbuettel, have become the focal point of suspicion around the source of Germany's massive e. coli outbreak, which has killed 31 so far and sickened some 3,000. First, tests indicated his sprouts were to blame. Then, they they were cleared. Today, Verbeck's crops are back in the doghouse as German health officials announced that epidemiological research had shown the sprouts were to blame, even though tests on them came back clean.

All this means Verbeck is going to have big headaches for a long time to come. As the BBC reported, security at his shuttered farm has been tight as "some reporters were caught climbing his fences to have a nose around the place where he produces bean sprouts for salads." The property in Bienbuettel, in the lower Saxony region, has become a magnet for photographers, health inspectors, gawkers, and reporters. And Thorsten Riggert, head of the farmers' union for Lower Saxony, tells the BBC that, whether or not Verbeck's crops are definitively shown to be the source of the outbreak, he may never escape the taint of the bad publicity. "Every time he looks for a contract, every time he mentions his name, people will remember this event and think again," Riggert said. Farmers don't make the news very often, and Verbeck's 15 minutes of fame have not turned out to be flattering at all.

But it's unusual that a small vegetable farm would be at the center of an outbreak like this. E. coli generally originates in rancid meat or the feces of animals or humans. A major E. coli outbreak in the United States in 2006 linked the source back to a spinach field that abutted a cattle pasture. Verbeck has said he doesn't use fertilizer and doesn't keep animals at his farm.

In Germany, the warning against sprouts goes beyond Verbeck's farm. Die Welt reported agricultural official Gert Lindemann as saying that "since this [the contamination] could have come from seed imported from abroad, there's a general warning about eating sprouts." But unfortunately for Verbeck, his is the farm people will likely remember when they think back to the massive outbreak of 2011. And he's not going to be able to wash that impression off for a long time to come.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.