Obama torn between Palestinians and Jews

America’s obstruction of a Palestinian statehood drive at the UN has left President Barack Obama facing charges he watered down his Middle East peace push to appease disgruntled Jewish voters.

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But polling data and electoral history suggests that American Jews do not make a president’s relations with Israel a litmus test for their vote and seem unlikely to desert Democrats for conservative Republicans in the 2012 election.

Still, experts say, Obama campaign aides, worried about any lost votes in what is shaping up as a close election, will be loathe to see the president spend more of his diminished political capital on a moribund peace process.

Obama’s relationship with Jewish voters — a key Democratic voting bloc — has been in the spotlight as his White House feuded with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pressured Israel on issues like settlements.

Circumstantial evidence suggests he has paid a political price.

APPROVAL RATING

In 2008, Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote and by the time of his inauguration, his approval rating with the community was 83 percent.

But his approval in the community had tumbled to just 54 percent by September, according to a recent Gallup poll.

A recent Republican victory in a fiercely Democratic district of New York where critics slammed Obama for “disparaging” Israel, left conservatives scenting an opening with Jewish voters.

“Don’t even think about throwing Israel under the bus,” said a Jewish voter in an Internet ad run by the Republican Jewish Coalition after the election.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, commentator Dan Senor said Obama was “losing the Jewish Vote” because of the “most consistently one-sided diplomatic record against Israel of any American president in generations.”

And Internet news pioneer Matt Drudge splashed: “Revenge of the Jews.”

Democratic leaders argued the race, in which conservative orthodox Jewish voters were prominent did not carry national implications.

DISCONTENT WITH OBAMA

But Republican 2012 challengers sought to fan Jewish discontent with Obama: Texas governor Rick Perry accused him of appeasing Palestinians.

So when Obama said last week at the UN that the US bond with Israel “is unbreakable,” after vowing to veto the Palestinian statehood bid, some observers saw outside motivations.

“Now is the time in which foreign policy makes way for domestic policy. Palestine-out; the Jewish voters in America-in,” said a commentary in the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

The White House said the veto threat was purely motivated by a belief that UN recognition will not bring a true Palestinian state, which can only be defined by negotiations with Israel, any closer.

The case that Israel policy is hurting Obama among Jews especially, is undermined by the fact that many demographic groups, not just Jews, are souring on Obama, including another key Democratic constituency, Hispanic voters.

And at 54 percent, Obama is at least 10 points more popular with Jewish voters, than he is among Americans as a whole.

TWO PER CENT

Exit polls in 2008 suggested only around two percent of voters nationwide are Jewish.

However, in vital swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania they could wield disproportionate power in hard-fought counties, so Obama aides will be wary of alienating even a small sample of voters.

“You have to neutralize as many of the possible negatives as you can,” said Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation, who argues Obama is now in a political box on Israel.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J-Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, said Obama’s aides may have drawn wrong conclusions.

“The idea that Jews are somehow fleeing in terms of their votes or their approval or support from Obama because of Israel — that is simplistic.”

“Unfortunately, I think that the way in which the Obama administration is approaching policy on this issue, is affected by their belief that they do have a problem.”

ISRAEL ‘DOWN THE LIST’

A Gerstein poll for J-Street in 2010, suggested Israel was well down the list of concerns for Jewish voters, with only 7 percent naming it as their top issue, compared to 62 percent motivated by the economy.

Ben-Ami also warned Obama aides may be overly influenced by powerful pro-Israeli lobby groups that he said do not reflect the entirety of American Jewish opinion.

Netanyahu has also forged strong links with conservative Republicans, further constraining Obama’s room for maneuver.

Factbox: Whose oil does the EU buy?

The European Union uses around 1 billion barrels of oil each quarter, imported from producers in various countries and offshore around the world.

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It has now decided to implement an oil embargo on Iran.

The Middle East is only the third-largest exporter of oil to Europe, and oil from Iran constitutes the second-largest quantity from that region.

Here is a look at where Europe’s oil comes from, and which countries may step in to fill the void left by the embargo on Iranian oil

These figures from the European Commission show the total number of barrels including crude, heavy and light, imported into Europe from each country between January and March 2011.

Offshore rigs are responsible for more than 40 per cent of Europe’s oil imports, supplying just under half – 400 million barrels – of Europe’s oil per quarter. The top three suppliers are:

1. The Russian Federation (277,839,000 barrels in total)

2. Kazakhstan (59,730,000 barrels)

3. Azerbaijan (39, 682,000 barrels)

The second-highest volume of oil is imported from Africa, which provides just over 200 million barrels per quarter, mostly from:

1. Libya (85,187,000 barrels)

2. Nigeria (51,417,000 barrels)

3. Algeria (21,105,000 barrels)

Africa’s contribution comprises 21 per cent of total imports.

A further 20 per cent comes from within Europe – with almost 200 million barrels supplied by:

1.Norway (111,306,000 barrels)

2. The United Kingdom (47,687,000 barrels)

3. Other European countries

The Middle East is fourth, providing just over 130 million barrels, or 14 per cent, in the first quarter of 2011. The main suppliers are:

1. Saudi Arabia (60,109,000 barrels)

2. Iran (39,322,000 barrels)

3. Iraq (17,782,000 barrels)

Just over 2.5 per cent of Europe’s oil comes from the Americas, with Mexico and Venezuela the main suppliers.

Court defers Assange ruling

British judges on Wednesday deferred their decision on an appeal by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange against his extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

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The High Court in London heard two days of arguments from Assange’s lawyers and from Swedish prosecutors as the Australian sought to overturn a ruling in February that approved his extradition.

“We will hand down our judgment in the usual way,” said Judge John Thomas, one of two judges dealing with the case, referring to a written decision.

He did not say when the ruling would be given.

Assange was arrested by British police in December after Sweden requested his arrest for questioning over allegations of sexual assault and rape against two women. He denies the claims.

Lawyers for Swedish prosecutors on Wednesday rejected defence claims that a rape allegation against Assange, made by one of the women, would not count as such under English law.

Clare Montgomery accused Ben Emmerson, one of Assange’s lawyers, of “winding English law back to the 19th century” with his definition of consent.

“They (the alleged victims) are describing circumstances in which they did not freely consent without coercion,” Montgomery said.

“They were forced either by physical force or by the sense of being trapped into the position where they had no choice and therefore submitted to Mr Assange’s intentions.”

On the allegation that one of the women woke up to find Assange having sex with her without a condom, Montgomery said: “She may later have acquiesced in it… but that didn’t make the initial penetration anything other than an act of rape she had not consented to.”

“This woman had never had unprotected sex and it was a very important issue to her,” she said.

Montgomery was later challenged by judge Thomas over her arguments that the European arrest warrant used on Assange was proportionate.

Discussing whether it would be sensible for Assange to be interviewed by Swedish authorities in some way before the extradition goes ahead, Thomas said: “If you actually take sensible steps to eliminate problems in the spirit of judicial cooperation, you may find the process simpler.”

Another of Assange’s lawyers, Mark Summers, reiterated arguments that the European arrest warrant was invalid because he is only wanted for questioning and has not been charged.

“There was from the very outset of this case an easier way to proceed, a more proportionate way to proceed,” he told the court.

He said the EU’s executive Commission had examined the European arrest warrant system and issued guidance that warrants should not be issued in circumstances where there is a “less onerous” alternative.

Assange took on a new legal team after a hearing in February which abandoned the bombastic statements by his previous lawyers warning that he could be deported to the United States and incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The former Australian hacker has himself remained uncharacteristically silent during the latest proceedings.

He refused to comment as he left the court on Wednesday surrounded by a scrum of some 50 journalists who were firing questions at him, instead pushing his way slowly through the crowd to a waiting car.

A ripple of applause went up from a group of his supporters who had set up a small encampment outside court, some of whom were dressed in orange jumpsuits of the kind worn by Guantanamo Bay detainees.

One man yelled into a loudspeaker: “We support you. But you should wear a condom, save yourself the trouble.”

At his previous appearances Assange gave long press conferences claiming the allegations are politically motivated and linked to his whistleblower website’s releases of huge caches of leaked US government documents.

He has been living under strict bail conditions, including wearing an electronic ankle tag and a curfew, at a friend’s mansion in eastern England.

Octopuses limber up for World Cup

“We are currently conducting different skills-training exercises with the octopuses in the hope that at least one of them can forecast as Paul,” said Britta Anlauf, spokeswoman for Sea Life Germany.

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In order to ensure a level playing field, each of the eight Sea Life centres in Germany, which is host to the June 26-July 17 women’s competition, will have exactly the same equipment, which will be delivered this week.

On the day of every Germany match at 11:00 am (0900 GMT), the octopuses will be put through their paces in Berlin, Hanover, Koenigswinter, Konstanz, Munich, Speyer, Timmendorfer Strand and at Paul’s old home in Oberhausen.

The exact format though is being kept a secret, but it is likely to be along the same lines of what Paul did during last year’s World Cup, when he was credited with correctly predicting the outcome of all seven Germany matches.

Two boxes were lowered into the salty soothsayer’s tank, each containing a mussel and the flag of the two opposing teams. The box that he yanked open first was deemed his choice to be the winner.

By the end the British-born cephalopod’s performance was being carried live on rolling news channels in Germany. He cost bookmakers a fortune and even correctly predicted Spain’s victory over the Netherlands in the final.

Paul died aged nearly three in October, sparking hundreds of messages of condolence from his fan club on social networking website Facebook, whose ranks have more than tripled since his death to more than 200,000.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said all the fuss encapsulated everything that was wrong with the West.

‘Kazakh poll failed to meet democratic principles’

“Notwithstanding the government’s stated ambition to strengthen Kazakhstan’s democratic processes and to conduct elections in line with international standards, the parliamentary elections still did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections,” the observer mission said a preliminary report about Sunday’s ballot.

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The snap election was won by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s ruling party Nur Otan with 80.74 percent of the vote, according to initial results.

The group will be joined in parliament by the pro-business Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party with 7.46 percent of the vote and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan — a largely pro-government group that won 7.2 percent.

The elections were run under new rules assuring the second-place finisher a few seats in parliament even if it won less than the seven-percent threshold.

The mission praised Kazakhstan’s plans to gradually introduce political plurality and noted that the vote was “aimed at introducing at least a second party into the parliament.”

But the mission — which involved the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, criticised the government for barring several opposition parties and leaders from the polls.

“If Kazakhstan is serious about their stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament, then the country should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate in this election,” said the mission’s special coordinator Joao Soares.

The report added that monitors also witnessed problems with how the vote was counted and did not always have access to the information they sought.

“The counting and tabulation processes were significantly lacking in transparency and respect for procedure, with cases of electoral fraud noted,” it said.

Miklos Haraszti, the head of the Election Observation Mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said: “This election took place in a tightly controlled environment, with serious restrictions on citizens'” electoral rights.

“Genuine pluralism does not need the orchestration we have seen.”

International observers had also condemned the conduct of April 2011 presidential election that saw Nazarbayev win more than 95 percent of the vote in a poll where even one of his rivals voted for the Kazakh strongman.

UN calls for credible, peaceful Thai polls

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called Thursday for the upcoming crucial election in Thailand to be conducted peacefully and in a “fair, credible and transparent” way.

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UN Secretary General Ban urged all parties to refrain from violence before, during and after the July 3 poll and “to accept and respect the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box,” his spokesman said in a statement.

FEARS THE VOTE COULD BRING UNREST

Amid fears that the vote could bring unrest, more than 430 candidates have sought protection, according to police, and more than 170,000 police officers are due to be deployed to protect polling stations on voting day.

The ruling Democrat party, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is locked in a tough battle with the main opposition party Puea Thai, led by the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006.

The country has since suffered from deep political divisions and a series of street protests by rival groups.

Ban “expects the elections will be conducted peacefully and in a fair, credible and transparent manner so as to contribute to reconciliation and the consolidation of democratic norms in the country,” his spokesman said.

THAKSIN REMAINS DIVISIVE FIGURE

The fugitive ex-premier Thaksin remains a hugely divisive figure in Thailand, hated by the Bangkok-based elites, who fear he could try to return a free man if his sister Yingluck Shinawatra wins, as the polls predict.

He lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai, having fled in 2008 before a Thai court sentenced him in absentia to two years in prison for corruption, and he is also wanted on criminal charges including terrorism.

That accusation links to protests by his working-class “Red Shirt” supporters, whose mass opposition protests in Bangkok last year turned deadly, ending after two months with an army crackdown and more than 90 people dead.

Many observers fear a resurgence of street demonstrations by rival groups over the coming months, and US policymakers are worried the vote may set off new instability that diminishes the role of Washington’s oldest Asian ally.

Many are also looking at the moves of the powerful Thai army, no stranger to intervention in politics after 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932.

Military chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha has pledged to be neutral in the election but he has also called on the electorate to cast votes for “good people” — an outburst taken as an attack on Yingluck.

Earlier this week, four soldiers were arrested in a crucial northeastern political battleground for allegedly intimidating opposition activists ahead of the vote, police said.

Another factor is the country’s long tradition of electoral irregularities, such as vote-buying.

The Thai election commission said Thursday that 27 representatives from nine of the 12 countries invited would be observing the vote, including Australia, India and Malaysia, as well as an international monitoring group.

SBS Dateline with Mark Davis comes live from Bangkok this Sunday July 3 at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.

MP names Giggs in injunction row

A British lawmaker defied a court ruling Monday by naming Ryan Giggs as the footballer who used an injunction to keep details of an alleged affair secret, escalating a row over privacy laws and the Internet.

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Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming named the Manchester United player using his centuries-old right to freedom of speech in the House of Commons, despite an injunction which gave the married sportsman anonymity in the British media.

Hemming acted after a Scottish newspaper on Sunday published Giggs’s photograph, arguing that it could no longer support a gagging order while the footballer had been named by thousands of people on microblogging site Twitter.

“With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter it’s obviously impractical to imprison them all,” Hemming told lawmakers.

Prime Minister David Cameron had also admitted on Monday that the situation was “unsustainable” and vowed to look into it.

Hemming was rebuked by the Speaker, but not before journalists had taken note — the media are entitled to report parliamentary proceedings without fear of being sued, and Hemming’s words were swiftly used nationwide to name Giggs.

Earlier Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, which owns The Sun and The Times, had made a fresh attempt to get the gag order lifted at the High Court, arguing that with all the debate on Twitter it was “futile” to maintain the anonymity order.

But judge David Eady rejected their attempt, saying: “The court’s duty remains to try and protect the claimant, and particularly his family, from intrusion and harassment so long as it can.”

News Group had used as part of their argument the indication by Cameron that he knew the identity of the footballer.

Giggs is expected to be in Manchester United’s squad for their Champions League final against Barcelona on Saturday where he could add to his record as the most decorated player in the history of the English game.

The prime minister had also admitted that something had to be done to address this “rather unsustainable” situation.

“It’s not fair on the newspapers if all the social media can report this and the newspapers can’t, so the law and the practice has got to catch up with how people consume media today,” Cameron said in an interview with ITV.

He added: “But there’s a difficulty here because the law is the law and the judges must interpret what the law is.”

In a bid to stem the online debate, Giggs’ lawyers announced Friday they were taking legal action to force Twitter to reveal the identity of users who broke the gagging order. But it only provoked more indignant Tweets.

Then, Scotland’s Sunday Herald became the first British newspaper or broadcaster to name the player who allegedly had an affair with reality television star Imogen Thomas.

The newspaper argued that it was not bound by the High Court, whose jurisdiction only extends to England and Wales.

In response to the row, Attorney General Dominic Grieve announced to lawmakers Monday that he was setting up a parliamentary committee to look into whether the current arrangements on privacy injunctions could be improved.

Conservative lawmaker John Whittingdale warned during the debate: “The actions by thousands of people of posting details on this on Twitter are in danger of making the law look an ass.”

Hemming’s intervention has set up a confrontation with Britain’s top two judges, who specificially warned lawmakers on Friday to think twice before undermining court orders in parliament.

They spoke out after a member of the House of Lords on Thursday had revealed that Fred Goodwin, the former boss of the bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland, had won an injunction banning publication of details of an alleged affair.

The High Court subsequently quashed the anonymity order that had been protecting him.

Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge questioned “whether it’s a good idea for our lawmakers to be flouting a court order just because they disagree with a court order or they disagree with the privacy law created by parliament.”

Man with world’s largest feet

The first thing that people notice about Brahim Takioullah is not his feet — which he hopes will make him famous — but his enormous height.

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He stands more than eight foot (246 cm) tall.

As he strolls through downtown Paris people gasp, stare, take his picture and ask: “Are you the tallest man in the world?” He’s not, not quite, but he does have the biggest pair of feet on the planet — and that’s official.

Judges from Guinness World Records came to France to measure him and confirmed his suspicion that he had record-breaking feet — his left measuring one foot three inches (38.1 cm) in length and his right, one foot 2.76 inches.

Takioullah cannot stand up straight in the small flat he shares with his mother in the Paris suburbs, has difficulty getting into a taxi or the Metro, and can never move around without attracting attention.

But he is surprisingly good humoured about his situation, smiling and posing for cellphone snaps and politely answering questions about his condition, a rare medical problem that he hopes to cure through surgery.

Takioullah is from Morocco, and grew up in a small village — grew up fast. In one year in his teens he put on more than three feet (one metre) in a spurt.

Now 29, no-one thought to investigate his unusual size until he was 18.

“The school doctor noticed that I was this enormous size and asked me to get some blood tests. I did that, and I was diagnosed with a very rare condition called acromegaly,” he told AFP.

Acromegaly is a pituitary gland disorder that causes the body to produce excessive growth hormone. The brain tumour can lead to other problems aside from great size, and Takioullah was advised to seek surgery.

But first he decided to finish his university studies in geography. When he began treatment, he was already huge and closing in on the world’s tallest man, eight-foot three-inch (2.51 metre) Sultan Kosen of Turkey.

Five years ago, a French doctor brought him to Paris for treatment, and he is not expected to reach Sultan’s height record.

Takioullah contacted Guinness himself to challenge for the record, and says he is proud to have it recognised, though daily life is not without its problems.

He hopes one day to have a specially built car he could drive himself, but for now even getting a pair of shoes stretches his budget — he takes a European size 58, which no shop has ever stocked.

“I always need them made-to-measure and they’re very expensive. I once asked a cobbler to make me some shoes and he said it would cost 3,500 euros (5,270 dollars),” he sighed.

This week he met an orthopedic podiatrist to be fitted with a specially made pair designed to support his huge weight.

“The thing is, when you have a very very large foot, even the machine to make the components isn’t necessarily big enough. So we really had to work right on the edge of the machinery.” said Jerome Liegeon.

French doctors are working to reduce Takioullah’s brain tumour, and he hopes his newfound fame will help him find the specialist treatment he needs.

“The record now will be known around the world, and experts anywhere around the planet may be able to help,” said Craig Glenday of Guinness World Records, publisher of the famous guide to the world’s extremes.

NATO denies leaving migrants to die

NATO denied Monday a report that one of its aircraft carriers left 61 migrants to die in the Mediterranean sea after they fled the conflict in Libya.

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The left-leaning Guardian newspaper in Britain reported that a boat carrying 72 migrants had left Tripoli on its way to Italy on March 25 but was left drifting for 16 days after a number of European and NATO military units apparently ignored pleas for help.

During the ordeal, the boat made contact with a military helicopter from an unknown nation and later, around March 29 or 30, was carried close to an aircraft carrier, the daily said, citing survivors.

A rescue never materialised, however, and the out-of-fuel ship eventually washed up on western Libyan beach on April 10, the Guardian said. Only 11 people survived while the rest had died of thirst and starvation at sea.

The Guardian said the aircraft was likely France’s Charles de Gaulle.

NATO said only one aircraft carrier was under NATO command at the time, Italy’s Garibaldi, which was operating 100 nautical miles out to sea.

“Any claims that a NATO aircraft carrier spotted and then ignored the vessel in distress are wrong,” said NATO deputy spokeswoman Carmen Romero.

Alliance vessels are “fully aware” of the responsibilities under maritime laws and helped to rescue some 500 people near Tripoli who were later transferred to Italy in late March, she said.

“The NATO units involved saw and heard no trace of any other vessels in the area where safety of life at sea was threatened,” Romero said.

The Guardian said the boat was carrying 47 Ethiopians, seven Nigerians, seven Eritreans, six Ghanaians and five Sudanese migrants.

Thousands of people fleeing upheavals in Tunisia and Libya have undertaken the perilous voyage to Italy’s island of Lampedusa in the past several weeks.

NATO warships began to enforce an arms embargo off Libya’s coast on March 23 to prevent Moamer Gaddafi’s regime from shipping in weapons and mercenaries.

Alliance combat jets taking off from aircraft carriers and land bases are also conducting air strikes against regime forces threatening cities and civilians.

At-a-glance: The E.coli outbreak

What is the E.

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coli bacterium, what diseases does it cause and what do we know about its origins and how to control it?

What is the E. coli bacterium?

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a bacterium that is commonly found in the gut of humans and warm-blooded animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless.

Some strains however, such as enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), can cause severe foodborne disease.

It is transmitted to humans primarily through consumption of contaminated foods, such as raw or undercooked ground meat products and raw milk.

EHEC produces toxins, known as verotoxins or Shiga-like toxins because of their similarity to the toxins produced by Shigella dysenteriae.

Why is this strain so much worse than others?

This “super-toxic” strain of the bacteria has never before seen in people. Hilde Kruse, of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said it had “various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing”.

Consequently, it is affecting all ages groups, not just particular groups such as children and the elderly, which is more commonly the case with E.coli.

DNA testing of bacteria in stool samples from affected patients is being done to ascertain the exact strain and its properties.

However, despite initial suspicion around certain vegetable food products (usually sources of E. coli infection are meat products) the source of the new strain and how it has been passed to so many people is still not clear.

The diseases caused by EHEC

Symptoms of the diseases caused by EHEC include abdominal cramps and diarrhoea that may in some cases progress to bloody diarrhoea (haemorrhagic colitis). Fever and vomiting may also occur.

The incubation period can range from three to eight days, with a median of three to four days.

Most patients recover within 10 days, but in a small proportion of patients (particularly young children and the elderly), the infection may lead to a life-threatening disease, such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS).

HUS is characterized by acute renal failure, haemolytic anaemia and thrombocytopenia. It is estimated that up to 10 per cent of patients with EHEC infection may develop HUS, with a case-fatality rate ranging from 3 per cent to 5 per cent.

Where has this strain come from?

Germany, specifically the north, is the geographical source. The source appears to be contaminated salad vegetables.

Initially scientists thought cucumbers were the source of infection, however, this has not been confirmed. Other foods are now being investigated.

How could salad vegetables become infected with a gut bacteria?

Fertiliser could be the prime source of infection, while irrigation water from streams contaminated with faeces from infected animals could also be to blame.

Cattle, for instance, can carry E.coli in their guts without becoming ill.

How to prevent the risk of E. coli outbreaks

* Always keep good hygiene, particularly after using the toilet and before preparing food, to prevent the faecal-oral cycle of transmission.

* Wash fruit and vegetables to remove excess dirt and therefore reduce bacterial load, although this will probably not remove all bacteria hidden within the surface.

* Peeling and cooking fruit and vegetables is more effective at reducing bacterial load.

* Location and removal of the source of the infection during an outbreak.