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BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) - German health officials said on Wednesday there had been a dramatic increase in the number of people infected in an E.coli outbreak which has so far killed 16 and whose source is still unknown.
The outbreak, centred on the north German city of Hamburg, has made more than 1,500 people ill in eight European countries, and led to an international row over the source of the contamination.
The German disease control agency the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported on Wednesday 365 new E.coli cases, a quarter of them involving the hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication of a type of E. coli known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).
European Union officials said three cases had also been reported in the United States, adding that most infections reported outside Germany involved German nationals or people who had recently travelled to the country.
The RKI figures contradicted remarks by European Union Health Commissioner John Dalli, who said the number of new cases appeared to be in decline.
"According to the latest information we have available from Germany, it appears that the outbreak is on the decline. Fewer people have been hospitalised over the past couple of days than before," Dalli told journalists in Brussels.
"Intensive work is taking place to pinpoint the source of contamination ... I urge member states and in particular Germany to increase their efforts in this direction," he added.
German authorities initially identified cucumbers imported from Spain as the likely source of the outbreak.
But on Tuesday they admitted that further tests on the cucumbers showed that, while contaminated, they did not carry the dangerous bacteria strain responsible for the deaths.
Spain, responding on Wednesday, said it was considering legal action.
"We do not rule out taking action against authorities which have cast doubt on the quality of our produce, so action may be taken against the authorities, in this case, of Hamburg," Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told radio station Cadena Ser.
Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at Britain's University of East Anglia, said he was not surprised by the German finding that cucumbers were not to blame.
"Cucumbers are not normally implicated in food poisoning outbreaks. They are so easy to clean for a start, and bacteria are less likely to be able to find a protected spot," he said.
"On the other hand, salads are a regular cause of outbreaks of food borne diseases including STEC, like this one, and salmonella. Outbreaks associated with consumption of salads are quite common on both sides of the Atlantic," he added.
Spanish farmers say lost sales resulting from the crisis are costing them 200 million euros (176 million pounds) a week, and could put 70,000 people out of work in a country which already has the highest unemployment rate in the EU.
Health Commissioner Dalli said he was looking at what the European Commission could do about the impact on producers.
"We are very sensitive to the impact that this crisis is already having on farmers, in particular vegetable producers."
It would be disproportionate to ban any single product because the source of the outbreak is not known, Dalli said.
Several European countries were reported to have blocked entry of Spanish cucumbers, but Dalli said the Commission had received no official confirmation of any import bans.
Russia's consumer protection watchdog repeated a threat to ban all vegetable imports from the EU, having already banned raw vegetable imports from Germany and Spain.
"Despite repeated requests, Russia's consumer protection watchdog has not received information from the European Union about the source of the infection, about dangerous produce or about measures being taken to localise and combat the outbreak," it said in a statement late on Tuesday.
French government spokesman Francois Baroin said the country had taken the precaution of setting up a crisis unit to deal with a possible outbreak in the country, with health officials across France on alert for signs of new cases.
Additional reporting by Martin Roberts in Madrid, Kate Kelland in London, Guy Falconbridge in Moscow, and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, editing by Tim Pearce