By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER
BERLIN — Schools have pulled raw vegetables from menus, piles of cucumbers sit untouched on shop shelves, and farmers say they’re losing millions.
As scientists scramble to find the source of an E. coli outbreak linked to raw vegetables that has killed 18 in Europe and sickened nearly 2,000, consumers are swearing off lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes just in case.
“Cook it or don’t eat it,” Hamburg kidney specialist Rolf Stahl told reporters at a press conference about the epidemic on Friday. “That’s my personal recommendation.”
Consumers from the northern German city of Hamburg — the epicenter of the outbreak — to Bulgaria, Spain, France and Sweden were worried about which vegetables and fruit they could still eat and what they should avoid.
“We no longer offer cucumbers, people just won’t buy them anymore,” said Mehmet Tanis, a vegetable vendor at Berlin’s busy weekly market in the city’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, who says his weekly profit is down 1,000 ($1,450).
“They’re completely scared to get sick — even though we always get our cucumbers from Jordan. We’re also selling 80 percent less lettuce, and only half the tomatoes.”
Most of those sickened say they ate vegetables beforehand. But without being able to pinpoint the source, German health authorities have issued a broad warning to stay away from all tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce.
Hamburg officials initially suspected cucumbers from Spain after three samples tested positive for E. coli, but later tests showed they were infected with a different strain of the bacteria than the one behind the outbreak.
Nevertheless, the jitters have devastated the Spanish produce industry.
In Almeria, one of Spain’s main agricultural regions and probably the hardest hit, the head of a farmer’s association said the market for exports to the rest of Europe is still virtually dead.
Before the crisis, Almeria exported 20,000 tons of produce a day. Now many farmers are simply destroying their crops — often right in the fields where they grow — because of lack of demand and to avoid the cost of shipping them to special centers that grind unwanted crops for compost or animal feed, said Francisco Vargas, head of the Almeria chapter of the Spanish farm association Asaja.
In Madrid, defiant businessman Javier Zaccagnini said he has made a special point of eating cucumbers even though he’s not a big fan, out of solidarity with the local farmers.
“My girlfriend bought some cucumbers and I was delighted to enjoy a fresh salad with her, to make a special effort,” said the 56-year-old. “There isn’t a problem with Spanish produce. I realized that very early on. I have no intention of changing any of my eating habits.”
Italian Maurizio Duchi also brushed aside concerns as he went into a Rome supermarket on his lunch break to pick up chicken and a salad.
“The situation seems to be under control and in any case I really don’t like cucumbers,” he said.
But elsewhere others were being more cautious.
“I ask where the vegetables come from when I make my procurements now,” said Jessica Eng, a vegetable vendor at the Saluhall market in Stockholm. “And I would not buy anything from Germany right now.”
In salad-loving Paris, Julie Cutelli, a 31-year-old teacher, said the outbreak had affected her grocery shopping, though it hadn’t pushed her to give up fresh greens altogether.
“I’m laying off the cucumbers and the tzaziki and started buying other crunchy vegetables instead, like radishes,” said Cutelli. “But I’m not going to stop eating salads, that’s for sure.”
With farmers across Europe complaining of millions in losses, Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in a telephone conversation late Thursday to push for EU help for those affected.
The current outbreak is considered the third-largest involving E. coli in recent world history, and it is already the deadliest with at least 17 dead in Germany and one in Sweden. Twelve people died in a 1996 Japanese outbreak that reportedly sickened more than 9,000, and seven died in a Canadian outbreak in 2000.
Among the 1,733 people sickened in Germany, 520 suffer from a life-threatening complication that can cause kidney failure.
Nine other European nations have reported a total of 80 people sick from the bacteria, most of whom had recently visited northern Germany, the World Health Organization said.
Russia on Thursday extended a ban on vegetables from Spain and Germany to the entire European Union to try to stop the outbreak spreading east, a move the EU quickly called disproportionate and Italy’s farmers denounced as “absurd.” No deaths or infections have been reported in Russia.
To calm worried customers, some bistros and restaurants in Berlin started putting up posters explaining to customers they are only offering “safe produce.”
Across the country, schools, kindergartens and nursing homes took all raw vegetables off menus until further notice and in the western German city of Hagen, an elementary school was closed Friday after a student fell ill with E. coli.
In Austria, medical experts even went so far as to warn local football fans attending Friday’s European football qualifier against Germany in Vienna to take extra precautions to avoid infection.
Michael Kunze, a doctor of social medicine in Vienna told the Austria News Agency that Austrian fans should wash their hands well and consider using disinfectant to avoid any possible transmission of the E. coli bacteria from the Germans saying “it can’t be ruled out.”
The news about tainted cucumbers in Germany even scared people as far away as Bulgaria where locals hesitated to buy the popular vegetable even when vendors offered proof the produce was from local farmers.
Market prices dropped five- to tenfold and on Friday cucumbers on some open markets in Sofia were traded as cheaply as 10 euro cents per pound.
In Ireland, where government officials dismissed suggestions of a threat from imported vegetables, shoppers remained suspicious.
At one Dublin branch of the German-owned Lidl chain, trays of Spanish iceberg lettuce were discounted two-thirds but attracting few takers.
“I don’t feel confident buying anything green and fresh today,” said Ann O’Leary, 32, a Dublin homemaker. “We’re going to be eating a lot of overcooked meats, a lot of canned food, and a lot of pasta until we’re given the all clear.”
She skipped the vegetable row of the supermarket entirely, stopping only for two bunches of bananas and a net of oranges. “I figure anything with a strong peel on it is safe to eat. I won’t get scurvy at least!”
Associated Press writers across Europe contributed to this story.