Egyptian Fenugreek Seeds Blamed for Deadly E. coli Outbreak; European Authorities Issue Recall

BERLIN—European and German officials say they have identified fenugreek seeds from Egypt as the source of the deadly outbreak of enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) that has sickened more than 4000 people and killed 49.

In a report released today, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says that a specific lot of seeds imported from Egypt to Germany is the most likely common link between the German outbreak, which was traced to sprouts produced on a farm in Lower Saxony, and a more recent one in France, in which home-grown fenugreek, mustard, and arugula sprouts seem to be the culprit. In both outbreaks, patients were sickened by the same E. coli strain, called EHEC O104:H4. (EHEC is also called STEC, for shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli.)

In response, the European Union today ordered member states to recall all fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt between 2009 and 2011 and has banned the import of all Egyptian seeds and beans for sprouting until at least the end of October.

The lot in question consists of 15,000 kilograms of fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt to Germany in November 2009. So far, officials have determined that the seeds were distributed to at least 70 companies in 12 European countries. The effort to track where the seeds ended up "is becoming complex and widespread and may take weeks," EFSA said in a statement.

Microbiological tests of seeds from the lot in question have so far been negative, but officials emphasize that negative tests don't mean that a lot is uncontaminated. Sampling techniques can easily miss the few seeds that can contaminate an entire batch of sprouts during the growing process, so scientists need some luck to find positive samples, says EFSA spokesperson Lucia De Luca.

EFSA has warned European consumers to avoid eating uncooked sprouts of any kind, as seed mixtures could have caused cross-contamination. German authorities said today that they are also tracing fenugreek seeds used in tea, as a spice, and in other products, for possible contamination.

The ultimate source of the bacteria is still an "open question," the EFSA report says, although it points to the farm where the seeds were grown as the most likely culprit. The contamination "reflects a production or distribution process which allowed contamination with faecal material of human and/or animal origin," says the report. "Typically such contamination could occur during production at the farm level."