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European E. coli called 'super-toxic'

LONDON -- Scientists blamed Europe's worst recorded food-poisoning outbreak Thursday on a "super-toxic" strain of E. coli bacteria that may be brand new.

Suspicion has fallen on raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce as the source of the germ, but researchers have been unable to pinpoint the food responsible for the frightening illness. It has killed 18 people, sickened more than 1,600 and spread to 10 countries.

An alarming number of victims -- about 500 -- have developed kidney complications that can be deadly.

Chinese and German scientists analyzed the DNA of the E. coli bacteria and determined that the outbreak was caused by "an entirely new, super-toxic" strain that contains several antibiotic-resistant genes, according to a statement from the Shenzhen, China-based laboratory BGI. It said the strain appeared to be a combination of two types of E. coli.

"This is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before," Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the World Health Organization, told The Associated Press. The new strain has "various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing" than the many E. coli strains people naturally carry in their intestines.

However, Dr. Robert Tauxe, a foodborne-disease expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, questioned whether the strain is new, saying it had previously caused a single case in Korea in the 1990s.

Russia extended a ban on vegetables from Spain and Germany to the entire European Union, a move the EU quickly called disproportionate and Italy's farmers denounced as "absurd." No deaths or infections have been reported in Russia.