- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2011

HAMBURG, Germany (AP) — German agricultural authorities on Sunday identified locally grown beansprouts as the likely cause of an E. coli outbreak that has killed 22 people and sickened more than 2,200 others in Europe.

The Lower Saxony Agriculture Ministry was sending an alert Sunday warning people to stop eating the sprouts, which often are used in mixed salads, ministry spokesman Gert Hahne told the Associated Press.

“Bean sprouts have been identified as the product that likely caused the outbreak,” Mr. Hahne said. “Many restaurants that suffered from an E. coli outbreak had those sprouts delivered.”

Mr. Hahne said the sprouts were grown on a farm in Lower Saxony in northern Germany. He did not elaborate but planned a news conference later Sunday.

Mr. Hahne said while official test results have not yet  shown conclusively that the Lower Saxony-grown sprouts were to blame, “all indications speak to them being” the cause.

He also said authorities still would keep their warning against eating tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce in place for now.

The 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 on Sunday — 21 people in Germany and one in Sweden — and said another 2,153 people in Germany have been sickened. That figure includes 627 people who have developed a rare, serious complication that can cause kidney failure.

The World Health Organization said 10 other European nations and the United States have reported a total of 90 other victims.

Earlier in the day, German Health Minister Daniel Bahr fiercely defended his country’s handling of the deadly E. coli outbreak as he toured a hospital in Hamburg, the epicenter of the crisis.

Mr. Bahr’s comments seemed to reflect a sharp U-turn in his public response to the crisis and came after Associated Press journalists reported on the chaos and unsanitary conditions in the emergency room of the same hospital, the University Medical Center in Hamburg-Eppendorf.

Prior to his visit, Mr. 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 he suggested that other regions start taking in sick patients from the north.

But after one E. coli survivor told the AP that sanitary conditions at the Hamburg hospital were horrendous when she arrived with cramps and bloody diarrhea, Mr. Bahr announced his visit and changed his tune.

Mr. Bahr told reporters that, despite capacity problems at some hospitals, German medical workers and northern state governments were doing “everything necessary” to help E. coli victims.

“I witnessed how the employees in the institutions have been working intensively and informing patients early and transparently” about their conditions, Mr. Bahr said.

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