Europe’s E. coli outbreaks linked to Egyptian seeds

LONDON,  (Reuters) – Imported fenugreek seeds from  Egypt may be the source of highly toxic E. coli outbreaks in  Germany and France that have killed at least 48 people,  according to initial investigations by European scientists.

More than 4,000 people across Europe and in North America  have been infected in the deadliest outbreak of E. coli so far  recorded, which started in early May. Almost all of those  affected lived in Germany or had recently travelled there.

The German outbreak and a smaller cluster of E. coli centred  around the French city of Bordeaux have both been linked to  sprouted seeds.

Experts from the Sweden-based European Centre for Disease  Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the Italy-based European Food  Safety Authority (EFSA) said initial investigations suggested  that “the consumption of sprouts is the suspected vehicle of  infection in both the French cluster and the German outbreak”.

“The tracing back is progressing and has thus far shown that  fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt either in 2009 and/or 2010  are implicated in both outbreaks,” they said in a joint  statement.

The strain of E. coli infections in the current outbreaks —  known as STEC O104:H4 — can cause serious diarrhoea and, in  severe cases, kidney failure and death.

EFSA spokeswoman Lucia de Luca would not confirm or deny  media reports that the seeds had come from Egypt via a single  German seed importer. “The investigations are still ongoing,”  she told Reuters.

German organic seed trader agaSAAT told Reuters it had  distributed seeds to Thomson & Morgan, a British seed trader  cited as a possible source for the outbreak in France, but had  been cleared by health authorities.

“We put our seeds under microbiological testing and there  have been no positive tests for E.coli,” agaSAAT’s chief  executive Werner Arts said. “This has also been confirmed by  German health authorities.”

Thomson & Morgan said in a statement that it had been  supplied with seed sourced in Egypt. “Further, we can confirm  that this sprouting seed was then exclusively supplied into the  French garden centre market,” it added.

Contaminated batches

The ECDC and EFSA inquiry teams warned that, since  contamination of the seeds could have occurred at any stage in  the long and complex supply chain between seed production,  transport, packaging and distribution, “this would also mean  that other batches of potentially contaminated seeds are still  available within the EU (European Union), and perhaps outside”.

The ECDC and EFSA said a batch of fenugreek seeds imported  from Egypt in 2009 appeared to be implicated in the outbreak in  France, and a 2010 batch was “considered to be implicated in the  German outbreak”.

But they said there was still “much uncertainty” about  whether these seeds from Egypt were “truly the common cause of  all the infections” as there were currently no positive  bacteriological results.

“Until the investigation has been finalised, ECDC and EFSA  strongly recommend advising consumers not to grow sprouts for  their own consumption and not to eat sprouts or sprouted seeds  unless they have been cooked thoroughly,” they said.

E. coli bacteria thrive in nutrient-rich environments such  as the guts of humans or cows, and also in the warm, wet  environment where seeds are sprouted commercially. The STEC  O104:H4 strain has been found to be particularly sticky, making  it likely to be able to cling on to leaves, seeds and other  foodstuffs.

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