Fenugreek May Be Cause of E. Coli Outbreaks

One batch of fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt is the most likely common link between E. coli outbreaks in Germany and France, the European Food Safety Authority’s task force said today.

The European Union will temporarily ban imports of “certain types” of seeds from Egypt and withdraw, sample and destroy seeds from one Egyptian exporter after the EFSA established the link, the European Commission said in a statement.

“We have trade data that confirms that the single lot is the most likely common source,” Lucia De Luca, a spokeswoman for the EFSA, said by phone. “Of course, we cannot exclude other lots that could be implicated.”

Investigators identified the link to fenugreek, a clover- like plant that is a common ingredient in curry, after finding it was served at an event attended by patients in Begles, France, on June 8. Consumers shouldn’t eat sprouts or sprouted seeds unless they have been cooked thoroughly, the EFSA said. The first cases of an E. coli strain that has infected more than 4,200 people and killed 49 in 13 European nations were reported in Germany two months ago.

The EFSA is looking at trade information and conducting microbiological tests to trace the spread of the seeds across Europe, De Luca said. The report said that about 15,000 kilograms (16.5 tons) of implicated seeds were imported from Egypt by a German company, which De Luca declined to name.

Tracing the Path

Tracing the seeds’ path through Europe may take weeks, and the number of countries that have received suspected lots “is much larger than previously known,” according to the EFSA report.

The German importer sent seeds to distributors in Germany and in the U.K., which sent batches to France, the EFSA said. One German distributor, for example, sold fenugreek seeds from the suspected lot to 70 different companies in Germany and 11 other European countries. Officials in the U.K. Health Protection Agency will meet today to discuss the outbreak.

Eleven of the French cases had attended an open day at a children’s community center on June 8, according to a June 29 report by the EFSA and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Nine of the 11 patients reported eating fenugreek, mustard and rocket sprouts at the event, the report said.

U.K. Distributor

The U.K. Food Standards Agency is testing samples of the three varieties of seeds sold by Thompson & Morgan (UK) Ltd. The tests are part of a probe into the French outbreak, the 156- year-old company, based in Ipswich, England, said in an e-mail June 30.

Although there has been no established link, Thompson & Morgan has temporarily withdrawn from sale five sprout-seed varieties, including fenugreek, according to a statement on its website. The company’s own supplier sourced the Egyptian seed, and this sprouting seed was then exclusively supplied into France, according to the e-mail.

The current E. coli epidemic is more deadly than previous outbreaks because the pathogen produces a poisonous byproduct called Shiga toxin and has the ability to stack together and stick to the gut, according to a study led by Helge Karch, director of the Hygiene Institute at the University of Muenster, last month. The unusual combination of traits makes it more likely for infected people to develop a potentially fatal kidney complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, they said.

The same type of E. coli, called O104, sickened a patient in South Korea in 2004. Genetic studies of that bacterium showed it’s unrelated to the pathogen in Europe, scientists at the National Institute of Health in Chungcheongbuk-do said in a letter in the July edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

To contact the reporter on this story: Charles Mead in London at cmead11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at pserafino@bloomberg.net

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