Middle East

Egyptian Seeds Are Linked to E. Coli in Germany and France

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European investigators fitting together the puzzle pieces of devastating E. coli outbreaks in Germany and France cautiously identified a likely source on Wednesday: contaminated fenugreek seeds from Egypt.

Officials also said that the seeds seemed to have entered Europe through a single German importer, which acted as a distributor to other companies.

A report by the European Food Safety Authority said that sprouts grown from fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt in 2009 and 2010 “are implicated in both outbreaks.” But it added that “there is still much uncertainty about whether this is truly the common cause of the infections” because tests on the seeds had not yet found any of the deadly E. coli, a rare strain known as O104:H4. Food safety experts say, however, that the bacteria can contaminate one seed in thousands and that it is very difficult to isolate in seed samples.

The devastating E. coli outbreak first surfaced in Germany in early May, eventually striking more than 4,000 people, nearly all of whom lived in Germany or had traveled there. The bacteria causes acute diarrhea and, in severe cases, kidney failure. At least 48 people died, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

The German authorities concluded the outbreak was caused by contaminated sprouts produced by a grower in northern Germany. The German grower produced many different types of sprouts, often selling them in mixes, and investigators were apparently unable to definitively identify a single variety as the culprit, despite some early accounts that blamed bean sprouts.

As the German outbreak began to wane in mid-June, a fresh wave of illness involving the same E. coli strain was identified in the Bordeaux region of France.

The French authorities said many of the people who fell ill had eaten sprouts from a mix of three varieties, including fenugreek.

Public health experts in the United States said that the French outbreak, in which about 16 people fell ill, may have helped investigators in the German episode to focus on the three varieties of sprouts, looking for common threads. The food safety authority’s report said the fenugreek seeds came into Europe from Egypt in two shipments, one in 2009 and one in 2010.

Ian Polombi, an authority spokesman, said a single importer in Germany handled the shipments. The report said that seeds from the 2010 lot were sold to the German sprouter implicated in the outbreak there, while seeds from the 2009 lot went to a British company that packed them and sold them to a retailer in France.

The French authorities last week said that the British seed company Thompson & Morgan had packaged the sprouting seeds that were tied to the Bordeaux E. coli cluster. A Thompson & Morgan spokeswoman said Wednesday that the company would not identify its suppliers.

Fenugreek resembles wild clover; its seeds and leaves are used as flavorings in China, South Asia and some Mediterranean countries. The Thompson & Morgan Web site says fenugreek sprouts have “a spicy curry flavor” and are high in vitamins A and C.

William Neuman reported from New York, and Scott Sayare from Athens.

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