German agriculture officials said yesterday that raw, locally grown beansprouts had been identified as a likely cause of the devastating E.coli epidemic which has killed 22 people and infected more than 2,000 since it began more than a fortnight ago.
Announcing the discovery at a hastily convened Press conference in Hanover, the agriculture ministry in the state of Lower Saxony said it had traced the beansprouts to a farm near Uelzen which grew and distributed them. It said the farm had been closed.
"The beansprouts have been identified as the product that is likely to have caused the outbreak," Gert Hahne, a spokesman for the ministry, said. "Many restaurants that suffered from an E.coli outbreak had those sprouts delivered."
The ministry said two female workers at the farm had contracted diarrhoea and traces of the E.coli bacteria had been found in specimens taken from one of the women. The farm produced eighteen types of beansprout which were mixed with salads for raw consumption.
Investigators said the sprouts were grown in special containers at 38 degrees Celsius. "This is an ideal temperature for bacteria to grow," a spokesman said. He said it was possible that some of the seeds for the beansprouts which were imported may have contained the bacteria on arrival or that the water used for the plants was contaminated.
The German government initially claimed Spanish cucumbers were the cause of the outbreak. Health authorities said there were no plans to lift a warning about eating cucumbers because final tests on the beansprouts had not been completed.
There are 11 people in the UK with food poisoning apparently linked to the toxic E.coli outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said. Eight have bloody diarrhoea and three are being treated for haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) - a deadly complication of E.coli. All are from or have visited northern Germany.
Globally more than 2,260 people have been infected so far. The WHO said 21 people have died in Germany as a result.
As of yesterday, there have been 15 deaths from HUS in the country from the 627 cases of the complication. The figure had increased by 54 since the previous day.
Another strain, enterohemorrhagic E.coli (EHEC) O104, has caused six deaths in Germany, and there were 1,536 cases without HUS. Total cases went up by 108 since the previous day.
Across the rest of Europe, there were 31 reported cases of HUS with one death in Sweden, and 71 EHEC cases with no fatalities.
Dr Brian Smyth, consultant in health protection at the Public Health Agency (PHA), said: "The PHA would advise anyone travelling to Germany to minimise their risk of catching this serious disease by washing all fruit and vegetables thoroughly before use. Peeling or cooking fruit and vegetables is also advised. Washing your hands before handling food and after going to the toilet will also prevent spread of E.coli and other infections."