A single batch of fenugreek seeds from Egypt is the ‘most likely common link’ between the 2011 German and French E. coli O104:H4 outbreaks, according to a Technical Report issued today by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The European Union has withdrawn Egyptian seeds from the market, and has temporarily banned the import of certain types of seeds and beans from Egypt. Member States have been instructed to insure that all lots of fenugreek seeds obtained from the implicated Egyptian exporter between 2009 and 2011 are withdrawn, sampled and destroyed. Further import of Egyptian seeds and beans for sprouting are suspended until October 31, 2011.

Between them, the two outbreaks have accounted for 896 cases of hemolytic syndrome and an additional 3,241 cases of bloody diarrhea in 16 countries since May 1st, 2011 – 4,137 reported cases in all. Fifty people have died – 48 in Germany, one in Sweden and one in the USA. It’s likely that an unknown number of milder gastrointestinal illnesses also can be blamed on this outbreak strain.

Although the EFSA has concluded that Egyptian fenugreek seeds are the most likely culprit, Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture was quite correct in stating last week that the implicated seeds were shipped to Holland, not to Germany, France or the UK. Here’s what happened.

On November 24, 2009, a consignment of fenugreek seeds (Lot #48088) departed by boat from the Egyptian port of Damietta. The boat arrived at Antwerp (Belgium) and the consignment – still packed in a sealed customs’ container – was sent by barge to Rotterdam (the Netherlands), where it cleared customs.

The sealed container then was trucked to Germany, where the German Importer (unidentified in the EFSA report) redistributed most of the seeds (now identified as Lot #6832) and retained 75 kg in storage. In October 2010, the German Importer received another lot (Lot #8266) of seeds from the same Egyptian exporter.

The German Importer of the fenugreek seeds supplied approximately two-thirds of the 2009 shipment to a distributor in Germany (also unnamed in the report).

The Distributor, in turn, sold 75 kg of the seeds to the German sprout producer – Gärtnerhof Bienenbüttel – implicated in the German E. coli O104:H4 outbreak. The German Importer also supplied approximately 400 kg of the same batch of seeds to a UK seed supplier/repacker (identified in French reports as Thompson & Morgan).

Thompson & Morgan repackaged the seeds in 50g packages (now identified as Lot #DRG1041132/10) and supplied them to a distributor in France, who resold the seeds to about 200 French garden centers. One 50g packet of the seeds was the source of the contaminated sprouts that caused the French outbreak cluster in the Bordeaux region. In addition to the seeds that were supplied to France, UK-packaged seeds from the implicated lot were also shipped to Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

It’s likely that at least some contaminated seeds are still either on the market or in the hands of consumers who produce their own sprouts. Trace-forward investigations have determined that the seeds were distributed by the German Importer as follows:

  • 10 500 kg were received by a single large distributor in Germany, who redistributed the seeds to 70 companies (54 in Germany and 16 in 11 other European countries;
  • 3 550 kg were received by 9 other companies in Germany;
  • 400 kg were received by one company in the UK;
  • 250 kg were forwarded via an Austrian distributor and received by one company in Austria; and
  • 375 kg were received by one company in Spain.
Contaminated seeds may also have been exported from Egypt to other countries. Play it safe – do not eat raw sprouts.