AMSTERDAM – Dutch authorities recalled red beet sprouts from three countries Thursday after samples were found to be contaminated with a strain of E. coli bacteria that was apparently less dangerous than the one causing Europe's deadly E. coli crisis.
German health officials, meanwhile, reported that three more people died of the ailment Thursday, raising the toll to 29 in less than six weeks.
The Dutch Food Safety Authority said laboratories were still trying to identify the Dutch strain of E. coli, but said there have been no immediate reports of serious illness from it.
Still, the agency said it was definitely not the same E. coli strain that killed 29 people, sickened 2,900 others and left hundreds with serious complications, most of them in Germany. The cause of that outbreak has so far eluded German investigators.
Only one Dutch grower, a company called Hamu, was found with contaminated beets, and other produce grown on its farms were cleared of suspicion, said Esther Filon, a spokeswoman for the Dutch regulation agency.
"It's not the same as in Germany. You can become ill, but as far as we know at this moment, it is not lethal," she told The Associated Press.
She said the authorities were trying to trace all shipments from the grower.
The agency said Hamu, based in the town of Kerkdriel, 44 miles (70 kilometers) southeast of Amsterdam, had exported beet sprouts to Belgium as well as selling them on the Dutch and German markets.
There are hundreds of E. coli bacteria strains in nature, but only a few are deadly to humans and the bacteria is more commonly known as a source of food poisoning or severe stomach problems.
People naturally carry several harmless E. coli strains in their intestines and the bacteria is also widely found in cows, sheep and other mammals. Strains which are harmless to animals can sometimes be lethal for humans. Experts worry about E. coli's constant evolution, which may result in dangerous mutations for humans.
The European Union informed the Netherlands late Wednesday that contaminated beet sprouts had been found in Germany, and tests in the Netherlands confirmed it.
Harald Wychel of the National Institute for Public Health said authorities are still investigating whether anyone has fallen ill from the Dutch strain.
In Berlin, the Robert Koch Institute said the rate of new illnesses was declining in the deadly E. coli outbreak. It said 2,808 people have been sickened in Germany, 722 of whom are suffering from a serious complication that can cause kidney failure. But it was not clear whether the epidemic was waning, or people were just successfully shunning fruit and vegetables.
Germany's Lower Saxony state health ministry said two more people died after being infected — a 20-year-old woman and an 68-year-old man.
At least five people were hospitalized following a family gathering for a 70th birthday late last month south of Hannover, and investigators were probing the catering firm for possible leads to the outbreak's source, the state ministry said.
European Union farmers say they have been losing up to euro417 million ($611 million) a week as ripe produce rots in fields and warehouses. The EU pledged Wednesday it would offer farmers compensation of up to euro210 million ($306 million) for the E. coli losses.
Russia and Saudi Arabia have issued a blanket ban on vegetable imports from the European Union.
Spanish farmers have been among the hardest hit, after authorities in Hamburg issued a warning that Spanish cucumbers could be the source of the outbreak. Further tests showed that while the Spanish vegetables did carry E. coli, it was not the strain behind the outbreak.
Spain's Secretary of State for European Affairs, Diego Lopez Garrido, said the compensation being offered by the EU is not enough and blasted the Russian ban on all EU vegetables as "inappropriate." Russia is a huge market for EU produce.