Press reports from northern Germany say public health authorities there are trying to determine if uncooked vegetables might be the source of an E. coli outbreak that has claimed at least three lives and may have infected 400 or more people, many of them young adult women.

According to Dr. Alex Friedrich, chair of Medical Microbiology and Infection Control, University Hospital Groningen, the Netherlands, the serotype involved in some of the cases is E. coli O104. Most laboratories would not be equipped to routinely screen for such a rare shiga-toxin producing E. coli.  “It’s a catastrophe,” he wrote in an email.

News reports described victims’ infections as severe, with as many as 80 developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication.

Many of those affected are being treated in hospitals, according to one report, and some have had to be placed on mechanical respirators. The epidemiological investigation has been hampered because many of the case patients have been too sick to give detailed information about what they have eaten.