HAMBURG, Germany — The terrifying E. coli outbreak in Europe appears to have been caused by vegetable sprouts grown in Germany, an agriculture official Sunday as the toll climbed to at least 22 dead and more than 2,200 sickened.
Preliminary tests found that bean sprouts 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, told The Associated Press.
Definitive test results should be available Monday, Lindemann said.
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 Sunday 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.
AP journalists went to the farm on Sunday night, but nobody was available to talk. Telephone messages left at the farm's office were also not returned immediately.
"First it's the 'evil' Spaniards, and then you hear, very surprised, that it is our neighbor," said Dietrich Benni, who lives near the farm. "It's a bit scary all of this, especially that it is coming from an organic place."
He added: "No more organic food for me for now."
The outbreak has been blamed on a highly aggressive, "super-toxic" strain of E. coli — perhaps one that scientists have never seen before.
E. coli can be found in the feces of humans and livestock and can spread to produce through sloppy bathroom habits among farmworkers and through animal waste in fields and irrigation water. Organic farms tend to use more manure than other producers.
Sprouts have been implicated in previous E. coli outbreaks, particularly one in 1996 in Japan, where tainted radish sprouts killed 12 people and reportedly sickened more than 12,000 others.
The current crisis is the deadliest known E. coli outbreak in modern history.
The head of Germany's national disease control center raised the death toll to 22 Sunday — 21 in Germany and one in Sweden — and said an additional 2,153 people in Germany have been sickened. That figure included 627 people who have developed a rare, serious complication of the disease that can cause kidney failure. Ten other European nations and the U.S. have reported a total of 90 other victims.
Earlier Sunday, Germany's health minister fiercely defended his country's handling of the crisis as he toured a hospital in Hamburg, the epicenter of the emergency.
The comments by Health Minister Daniel Bahr reflected a sharp shift in his public response to the crisis and came after AP journalists reported on emergency room chaos and unsanitary conditions at the same hospital, the University Medical Center in Hamburg-Eppendorf.
On Saturday, Bahr admitted that hospitals in northern Germany were overwhelmed and struggling to provide beds and medical care for victims of the outbreak, and he suggested that other German regions start taking in sick patients from the north.
But after one E. coli survivor told the AP that conditions at the Hamburg hospital were horrendous when she arrived with cramps and bloody diarrhea, Bahr announced a visit and told reporters that German medical workers and northern state governments were doing "everything necessary" to help victims.
Nicoletta Pabst, 41, told the AP that sanitary conditions at the Hamburg-Eppendorf hospital were shocking and its emergency room was overflowing with ailing people when she arrived May 25.
"All of us had diarrhea and there was only one bathroom each for men and women — it was a complete mess," she said Saturday. "If I hadn't been sick with E. coli by then, I probably would have picked it up over there."
Doctors and nurses in northern Germany have been working overtime for weeks since the crisis began May 2.
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