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However, the negative test results do not mean that previous sprout batches weren’t contaminated.

“Contaminated food could have been completely processed and sold by now,” ministry spokeswoman Natascha Manski said.

In that case, the number of people stricken might keep rising for at least another week as the produce that could be causing the infections may have already been delivered to restaurants and grocery stores.

More than 630 of the victims are hospitalized with a rare, serious complication that can lead to kidney failure.

In a major difference from other E. coli outbreaks, women _ who tend to eat more fresh produce _ are by far the most affected this time, said Germany’s national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute. The majority of them are between 20 and 50 years old and tend to be highly educated, very fit, and lead healthy lifestyles, Friedrich Hagenmueller of Asklepios Hospital in Hamburg said.

“What do they have in common: They are thin, clean, pictures of health,” he said.

Ulrike Seinsche is one of the women diagnosed with the serious complication that can lead to kidney failure.

“I really got scared when the blood results came and were so bad and the doctors became hectic,” she said from her hospital bed in Hamburg.She was quickly transferred into intensive care, got cramps and suffered “real death fear,” she said. “Now, I’m actually stable.”

Osterholm, whose team has investigated a number of foodborne outbreaks in the U.S., said authorities should trace foods back to their suppliers _ which is exactly what led German officials to single out the sprout producer, linking it to several restaurants where more than 50 people fell ill.

Since 1996, about 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness in the U.S. have been linked to raw or lightly cooked sprouts. Sprouts were also implicated a 1996 E. coli outbreak in Japan that killed 12 people and reportedly sickened more than 9,000.

At an EU health ministers meeting Monday in Luxembourg, Germany defended itself against accusations it had acted prematurely in pointing to Spanish cucumbers.

“The virus is so aggressive that we had to check every track,” said Health State Secretary Annette Widmann-Mauz.

The EU will hold an emergency meeting of farm ministers Tuesday to address the crisis, including a ban imposed by Russia on all EU vegetables.

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Baetz reported from Berlin. Raf Casert in Brussels, Daniel Wools in Madrid, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin and AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.