Tests point to beansprouts grown in Germany as source of E.coli epidemic

German agriculture officials said yesterday that raw, locally grown beansprouts had been identified as a likely cause of the devastating E.coli epidemic which has killed 22 people and infected more than 2,000 since it began more than a fortnight ago.

Announcing the discovery at a hastily convened press conference in Hanover, the agriculture ministry in the state of Lower Saxony said it had traced the beansprouts to a farm near Uelzen which grew and distributed them. It said the farm had been closed.

"The beansprouts have been identified as the product that is likely to have caused the outbreak," Gert Hahne, a spokesman for the ministry, said. "Many restaurants that suffered from an E.coli outbreak had those sprouts delivered."

The ministry said two female workers at the farm had contracted diarrhoea and traces of the E.coli bacteria had been found in specimens taken from one of the women. The farm produced 18 types of beansprout which were mixed with salads for raw consumption.

Investigators said the sprouts were grown in special containers at 38C. "This is an ideal temperature for bacteria to grow," a ministry spokesman said. He said it was possible that some of the seeds for the beansprouts, which were imported, may have contained the bacteria on arrival or that the water used for the plants was contaminated.

The German government initially claimed that Spanish cucumbers were the cause of the outbreak. Health authorities said there were no plans to lift a warning about eating cucumbers because final tests on the beansprouts had not been completed.