A German farm is facing an inquiry over the outbreak of E.coli that has killed 22 people, after officials said bean sprouts could be behind the crisis.

Authorities have shut the Gaertnerhof Bienenbuettel farm, which lies 70km south of Hamburg, and recalled produce, while test results are expected later on Monday.

But Klaus Verbeck, the managing director of the farm, has said he cannot understand the accusations levelled at the centre.

"I can't understand how the processes we have here and the accusations could possibly fit together," he told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung paper on Monday.

"The salad sprouts are grown only from seeds and water, and they aren't fertilised at all. There aren't any animal fertilisers used in other areas on the farm either."

Shock

Locals have also expressed shock that the farm could be responsible for the bacteria, which has left around 2,000 people ill across Europe.

Sibylle Lange, a neighbour, told the Reuters news agency that the accusations had "deeply affected" people in the community.

"These are very serious, hardworking people who were very early producers of organic products," Lange said.

"They've been working here for some 30 years. It's a high-quality product. I've eaten all sorts of vegetables from here - bean sprouts included - and they taste delicious. I
can't imagine the source could come from here."

But Hans Gert Hahne, spokesperson for the state agriculture ministry in Lower Saxony, said the farm had been "caught perhaps being a bit sloppy".

"He works honestly, it is a normal medium-sized company and he can't do anything about it but it was just bad luck that he is the source and as a result his whole method of work is being turned upside down," he told Reuters.

Earlier, Daniel Bahr, the German health minister, said there were "strong and clear indications that a farm in Uelzen" was involved, but said they could not give the all-clear until test results were in.

Farmer compensation

Health officials have continued to warn people in Germany against eating any sprouts and to be careful with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuces.

The European Commission has said it will on ask member states to back special "compensation" for farmers whose sales of fresh produce have evaporated amid the outbreak.

EU agriculture ministers are due to hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the crisis and its impact on vegetable producers.

The ministers "will be taking stock of the situation of the EHEC (strain of E. coli) outbreak both from the market perspective and also food safety," Marton Hajdu, spokesman for the Hungarian presidency of the European Union, told the AFP news agency.

The outbreak has caused chaos among Europe's vegetable growers after Germany  warned against eating raw cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce, particularly in the north of the country.

Initial accusations that the outbreak stemmed from Spanish cucumbers also caused diplomatic tensions.

Spanish farmers have complained that the accusations were having a devastating financial effect.

Source: Agencies