EU recalls and bans Egyptian sprout seeds

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Jul 5, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The European Union today ordered the recall and ban of certain types of seeds from Egypt after a new report from its food safety agency further detailed a link between the products and Escherichia coli outbreaks in Germany and France.

The European Commission said in a press release today that the action is aimed at ensuring that all lots of fenugreek seeds imported from one Egyptian exporter between 2009 and 2011 are withdrawn, sampled, and destroyed. It added that the ban suspends the imports of all Egyptian seeds and beans for sprouting until Oct 31.

The European Commission did not name the Egyptian exporter, but on Jun 29 the original version of a risk assessment from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reported that investigations so far suggest a link between both outbreaks and lots of Egyptian fenugreek seeds imported by a German company, AGA SAAT GMBH.

The ECDC has since removed the importer's name from its report out of concern for the company, and AGA SAAT GMBH has threatened media outlets, including CIDRAP News, with legal action if its name is not removed from previous stories naming it as the importer.

The EFSA today in a task force report concluded that one lot of Egyptian fenugreek seeds imported by the German company is the most likely common link between the German and French outbreaks. However, the agency said it could not rule out the involvement of other lots of seeds imported from Egypt between 2009 and 2011.

It urged the European Commission to prevent further consumer exposure to the seeds and it advised EU countries to trace seeds from potentially contaminated seed lots.

"The report highlights that negative results from microbiological tests carried out on seeds cannot be interpreted as proof that a lot is not contaminated with STEC [Shiga toxin–producing E coli]," the EFSA said.

In its 23-page technical report today, the EFSA said the number of EU countries that received parts of the suspected lots is much larger than previously known and that the trace forward operation is very complex and could take several weeks.

It said the most likely possibility is that the seeds were contaminated with E coli O104:H4 before leaving the importer. For example, it said farming practices could have contaminated the seeds with animal or human fecal material. Though contamination at later steps is possible, it's unlikely that it could have occurred during transport in sealed containers, the EFSA said.

According to the report, the 15,000-kg fenugreek seed lot (#48088) implicated in the outbreak left Egypt by boat in sealed containers on Nov 24, 2009, and arrived in Rotterdam, where the containers were sent by truck on Dec 14 to the importer in Germany. The company distributed 14,925 kg of the seeds and retained 75 kg for storage.

The EFSA said the German farm linked to the German infections received seeds from that lot on the same day it received seeds from another lot from the same Egyptian and German distributors. The investigation also linked a packet of seeds identified in the French outbreak to lot #48088. The UK seed packager, previously identified as Thompson & Morgan, received the seeds from the importer on Jan 13, 2010.

Trace-forward findings suggest the importer sold fenugreek seeds from the potentially contaminated lot to 70 different companies, 54 of them in Germany and 16 of them in 11 other EU countries. The EFSA said many of the seeds may have already been used, but some could still be present in the supply chain.

Europe gets most of its sprout seeds from India and China, according to the European Commission. In 2010 it imported 49,000 tons of sprout seeds worth about $80 million from Egypt.

The ECDC said today that it has received 134 more E coli infection reports since Jul 1, including 9 additional HUS cases. One more death was reported. Europe's E coli outbreak total now stands at 4,211 cases, including 897 with HUS and 50 deaths.

See also:

Jul 5 European Commission press release

Jul 5 EFSA press release

Jul 5 EFSA technical report

Jul 1 CIDRAP News story "ECDC erases name of importer from report on E coli cases"

Jul 5 ECDC outbreak update

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