'No trace' of E.coli at bean sprout farm suspected as German source

Health authorities were still struggling to find a source for Germany's E.coli outbreak yesterday after investigators failed to discover traces of the bacteria at a bean sprout farm strongly suspected of growing contaminated vegetables.

Health inspectors in the northern state of Lower Saxony shut down the farm in the village of Bienenbü ttel south of Hamburg on Sunday after two of its workers contracted diarrhoea and one of them became infected with E.coli. The farm was still considered to be a very likely a source of the outbreak.

Initial tests failed to provide any evidence that the farm's produce or premises were contaminated with the aggressive mutant strain of E.coli. The bacteria has so far killed 22 people and infected more than 2,000 others. Of 40 tests carried at the farm, the first 23 had revealed no trace of E.coli, officials said.

Gert Hahne, a spokesman for Lower Saxony's Agriculture Ministry, insisted that the search would continue. He said further "intensive analysis" had to be conducted on the imported seeds used to grow the bean sprouts to "establish beyond doubt" if the bacteria was or was not present.

Health officials said they remained convinced that contaminated bean sprouts from the farm were a source of the outbreak. The farm's produce had been supplied to a golfing hotel near the town of Lüneburg, where 11 Swedish tourists and a Dane had fallen ill after being infected with the bacteria. The farm was also said to be the source of bean sprouts supplied to the Kartoffel-Keller restaurant in the port city of Lübeck where 17 people became infected. One of the women died from the disease late last month. Health checks carried out at the restaurant failed to find E.coli traces.

Health officials said the farm's bean sprouts had also been delivered to several other addresses, including three works' canteens, a hotel in the city of Bochum, a pub in Lower Saxony, other canteens in Darmstadt and Frankfurt and several street markets. All of the locations cited reported people later infected with the bacteria.

Most retailers and big supermarket chains in Germany said yesterday that they had removed bean sprouts from their shelves. In Hamburg, epicentre of the epidemic, officials said the E.coli infection rate appeared to be slowing down after 200 people were reported to have fallen ill within the space of two days last week.