LONDON/BERLIN, June 30 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
sickened 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
Experts from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and
Control (ECDC) and the European Food Safety Authority 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 posted on the ECDC's website late on Wednesday.
The European investigators said 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 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.
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
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 are currently no positive
"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 like
the guts of humans or cows. 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.
Fenugreek is used as a herb, a spice in many types of curry,
and for spouting seeds used in salads, and as a garnish.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland in London and Eric Kelsey in Berlin;
editing by Mark Heinrich)