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Although tests turned up negative _ a common result in E. coli investigations, when the offending food is usually consumed before the probe begins _ authorities started looking into the farm’s delivery records.

That took them to a golf club in Lueneburg, a restaurant in Luebeck, another in Rothenburg/Wuemme and cafeterias in Frankfurt, Darmstadt and Bochum _ all places where customers had fallen ill.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control center, questioned 112 people who had eaten at a single restaurant, including 19 who had fallen ill. All of the sick people had consumed produce from the suspect farm.

“They even studied the menus, the ingredients, looked at bills and took pictures of the different meals, which they then showed to those who had fallen ill,” said Andreas Hensel, head of Germany’s risk assessment agency.

The result was that customers who ate sprouts were nearly nine times more likely to be infected than other diners. Twenty-six clusters of sickened people were identified _ and another 30 are under investigation _ all connected to the farm.

Then came the nearly-smoking gun: On Wednesday, it was confirmed that three farm workers had fallen ill from E. coli in early May, when the outbreak first started.

On Thursday night, German medical and agriculture officials held a conference call.

“That’s when we were told: ‘Your sprout lead is foolproof,’” Hahne said.

Reinhard Burger, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, said the investigation produced enough evidence to pinpoint the sprouts as the source even though no laboratory tests came back positive.

“It was possible to narrow down epidemiologically the cause of the outbreak of the illness to the consumption of sprouts,” Burger said Friday at a news conference. “It is the sprouts.”

Burger warned the crisis was not yet over and people should not eat raw sprouts. While the Bienenbuettel farm was shut down last week and all of its produce recalled, some tainted sprouts could still be in the food chain.

Investigators were still testing seeds and other samples from the farm.

Officials in North Rhine-Westphalia state also reported Friday that tests had confirmed the deadly E. coli strain in a bag of sprouts from the farm that was in the garbage of a family near Cologne where two people had been sickened.

The outbreak has sickened nearly 3,000 people in Germany, with 759 of them suffering from a serious complication that can cause kidney failure. Twelve other European countries have 97 cases and the United States has three.

On Friday, authorities lifted the warning against eating cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce, and Russia agreed to remove its ban on European vegetable imports. European farmers, forced to dump tons of unwanted produce, breathed a sigh of relief.

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