GERMAN health authorities revealed yesterday that locally-grown beansprouts have been identified as the likely cause of the E coli outbreak.
The breakthrough came as German's national disease control centre confirmed that three more people have died, bringing the death toll to 22.
Reinhard Burger, head of the Robert Koch Institute said, in addition to the 21 people killed in Germany and one in Sweden, another 2,153 were ill, including 627 people who have developed a complication that can cause kidney failure.
As the death toll grew, the Lower Saxony agriculture ministry identified the beansprouts as the likely cause of the health crisis.
Ministry spokesman Gert Hahne said last night his agency was warning people to stop eating the sprouts, which are often used in mixed salads.
Mr Hahne said many restaurants where people ate before becoming ill had recently taken delivery of the sprouts. Hahne said official test results have not yet conclusively shown that the Lower Saxony-grown sprouts are to blame but "all indications speak to them being" the cause.
However, he said there will not be any immediate lifting of the warning against eating tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce.
Hospitals in northern Germany were being overwhelmed as they struggled to provide enough beds and medical care for patients.
"The situation in the hospitals is intense," German health minister Daniel Bahr said, adding that clinics outside of Hamburg and northern Germany -- the epicentre of the E coli outbreak -- should start taking in ill persons from the north.
Ten other European nations and the US have reported 90 other cases, all but two related to visits in northern Germany.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have confirmed that 22 people have died from the outbreak since May 2.
The bacteria, enterohemorrhagic E coli, is a type that can cause bloody diarrhoea and a toxin that damages the kidneys. This outbreak is the deadliest ever tied to the bowel-dwelling bacteria.
The German variant of E coli, known as O104, is a hybrid of the strains that can cause bloody diarrhoea and kidney damage called 'hemolytic uremic syndrome'. Some patients require the use of dialysis to scrub the blood clean.
Patients also may need transfusions after the bacteria dissolves their red blood cells, said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of foodborne illness at the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
E coli commonly occur in the human gastrointestinal tract, where they usually cause no harm.
Meanwhile, a restaurant in Luebeck, Germany, is being investigated after 17 people became ill with the same strain of E coli. It received its supplies from Hamburg, the owner told ZDF television in an interview yesterday. Authorities investigated the restaurant, the 'Kartoffelkellar', as a possible source of the outbreak, 'Luebecker Nachrichten' reported last week.
Luebeck is about 65km northeast of Hamburg, which European Union Health Commissioner John Dalli said last week was the "epicentre".
Members of the German Tax Administration Union, a Danish tour group and a family and became ill with enterohemorrhagic E coli, after eating steak and salad at the Kartoffelkellar.