Beansprouts 'likely cause of bug'
The E. coli outbreak in Europe appears to have been caused by vegetable sprouts grown in Germany, an agriculture official said, as the toll climbed to at least 22 dead and more than 2,200 ill.
Preliminary tests found that beansprouts and other sprout varieties from an organic farm in the Uelzen area, between the northern cities of Hamburg and Hannover, could be connected to infected people in five German states, Lower Saxony Agriculture Minister Gert Lindemann said.
"There were more and more indications in the last few hours that put the focus on this farm," Lindemann said at a news conference.
Many restaurants involved in the outbreak had received deliveries of the sprouts, which are often used in salads, Lindemann's spokesman, Gert Hahne, said.
Definitive test results should be available on Monday, Lindemann added.
In recent days, as health officials tried to pinpoint the source of the unusually lethal outbreak, suspicion fell on lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes, perhaps from Spain. Spanish farmers complained that the accusations were having a devastating financial effect.
The German farm was shut down and all of its produce - including fresh herbs, fruits, flowers and potatoes - was recalled. Two of the farm's employees were also infected with E. coli, Lindemann said. He said 18 different sprout mixtures from the farm were under suspicion - including sprouts of mung beans, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, garlic lentils and radishes.
As for how the sprouts became contaminated, Lindemann noted that they are grown with steam in barrels - an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply.
He said it is possible that the water had been contaminated with E. coli or that the sprout seeds - purchased in Germany and other countries - already contained the bacteria. He said the farmers had not used any manure, which has been known to cause E. coli outbreaks.
Lindemann urged Germans to not eat sprouts until further notice. He said authorities could not yet rule out other possible sources and urged Germans to continue avoiding tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce for now.