* Separate shipments pinpointed in French, German outbreaks
* Contaminated batches may still be circulating in EU and
* STEC O104:H4 strain can cause acute diarrhoea, kidney
(Adds statement from British seed company)
By Eric Kelsey and Kate Kelland
LONDON, 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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
Thompson & Morgan said it was still waiting to hear the
results of tests on three varieties of its seeds -- organic
fenugreek sprouting seed, white mustard sprouting seed and
rocket sprouting seed -- which were being tested by Britain's
Food Standards Agency as part of the investigations.
Fenugreek is used as a herb, a spice in many types of curry,
and for seed sprouts used as a garnish and in salads.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)