HAMBURG, Germany (AP) — Initial tests have confirmed that bean sprouts grown in northern Germany are the likely cause of an E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 22 people and sickened over 2,200, an agriculture official said Sunday.
Different kinds of sprouts from one organic farm in the greater Uelzen area, between the northern cities of Hamburg and Hannover, could be traced to infected persons in five different German states, Lower Saxony Agriculture Minister Gert Lindemann told reporters.
"There were more and more indications in the last few hours that put the focus on this farm," Lindemann said at a press conference in Hannover.
"Many restaurants that suffered from an E. coli outbreak had those sprouts delivered," his spokesman, Gert Hahne, told The Associated Press.
The farm was shut down Sunday and all of its produce — including fresh herbs, fruits, flowers and potatoes— was recalled. At least one of the farm's employees was also infected with the E.coli bacteria, the minister said.
Lindemann said 18 different sprout mixtures were under suspicion — including sprouts of beans, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, garlic lentils, mungo beans and radish. The sprouts are often used in mixed salads.
Lindemann urged Germans to not eat sprouts until further notice and said definitive test results would be available Monday. He said authorities could not yet rule out other possible sources for the outbreak and urged Germans to continue avoiding tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce until further notice.
No one answered the phone at the farm linked to the outbreak on Sunday night.
Sprouts have been implicated in previous E. coli outbreaks, particularly one in Japan in 1996 where tainted radish sprouts were found to have killed 12 people and reportedly sickened more than 12,000 others.
The current crisis is the deadliest E. coli outbreak in modern history.
The head of Germany's national disease control center raised the death toll to 22 people Sunday — 21 in Germany and one in Sweden — and said another 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 deadly E. coli outbreak as he toured a hospital in Hamburg, the epicenter of the crisis.
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 enough beds and medical care for patients stricken by the bacterial outbreak, and 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 his visit and changed his tune.
Bahr told reporters Sunday that, despite capacity problems at some hospitals, German medical workers and northern state governments were doing "everything necessary" to help E. coli 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."
After waiting three hours to be seen, Pabst was told to go home because her blood levels did not indicate that she had kidney failure. But her symptoms deteriorated sharply, and she had to be rushed to a different hospital by ambulance the following morning. She was treated there for a week and her children were blocked from going to school because of her infection.
Physicians and nurses in northern Germany have been working overtime and double-shifts for weeks since the crisis began May 2.
Jan Kielstein, a nephrologist at a Hannover hospital, told the Tagblatt newspaper that staffers were working day and night and had even canceled vacations to help treat E. coli patients.
Oliver Grieve, spokesman for the Schleswig-Holstein University Hospital in the northern city of Kiel, told Spiegel Online that employees were working around the clock and sleeping at the hospital, and additional ER nurses had come up from southern Germany to help.
Critics had also questioned the slow pace of Germany's investigation, with the medical director of Berlin's Charite Hospitals, Ulrich Frei, saying that health experts should not have waited a month before interviewing victims.
Grieshaber reported from Berlin.