EU bans Egyptian seeds over deadly E.coli outbreak
Europe banned imports of some seeds and beans from Egypt on Tuesday after food safety investigators said a single shipment of fenugreek seeds from there was the most likely source of a highly toxic E. coli epidemic which has killed 49 people.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said beyond France and Germany, where outbreaks of the deadly E. coli strain have made thousands ill in recent months, other European Union countries may have received batches of suspect seeds.
It urged the officials to make “all efforts” to prevent any further exposure and said consumers should not eat sprouts or sprouted seeds unless they are thoroughly cooked.
More than 4,100 people in Europe and North America have been infected in two outbreaks of E. coli infection—one very large one centered in northern Germany and a smaller cluster focused around the French city of Bordeaux.
Almost all of those affected in the first outbreak—the deadliest on record—lived in Germany or had recently travelled there. The infection has killed 48 people in Germany and one person in Sweden.
“An imported lot of fenugreek seeds which was used to grow sprouts imported from Egypt by a German importer is the most common likely link,” the EFSA said in a statement.
EU health commissioner John Dalli said that as a result of EFSA’s findings, the EU would ban imports of some seeds and beans from Egypt until October 31.
“The report published today leads us to withdrawing some Egyptian seeds from the EU market and to a temporary ban on imports of some seeds and beans originating from that country,” he said in a statement.
The ban covers imports of Egyptian seeds and beans for sprouting, including legumes, fenugreek and soya beans.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)said it had added fenugreek sprouts, seeds for sprouting and fenugreek from Egypt and allcountriesin Europe to its list of products for increased import surveillance.
“These products will be analyzed and tested prior to being allowed to enter the U.S.,” an FDA official told Reuters
POSSIBLE SEVERE HEALTH IMPACT
The EFSA report said the contamination of the seeds with a highly toxic strain of E.coli had taken place “at some point prior to leaving the importer.”
“Other lots of fenugreek imported from Egypt during the period 2009 to 2011 may be implicated,” EFSA said, adding that investigations should be carried out in all countries that may have received seeds from the lots concerned.
The European Commission said all fenugreek seeds exported to Europe since 2009 by the Egyptian company identified as the source of the contaminated batch must be withdrawn, tested and destroyed. It did not identifying the company involved.
According to the Commission’s statement, the EU imports seeds for sprouting mainly from India and China. In 2010, the EU imported from Egypt about 49,000 tons of the types of seeds affected by Tuesday’s decision, it said. Their total value was more than 56 million euros ($79.5 million).
“Given the possible severe health impact of exposure ...it seems appropriate to consider all lots of fenugreek from the identified exporter as suspect,” the EFSA said in a report on its investigations.
The strain of E.coli infections identified in the outbreaks is known as STEC O104:H4 and can cause serious diarrhea and in severe cases kidney failure or death.
“The contamination of seeds with the STEC O104:H4 strain reflects a production or distribution process which allowed contamination with fecal material of human and/or animal origin,” EFSA said. “Where exactly this took place is still an open question.”
E.coli bacteria thrive in nutrient-rich environments like the guts of humans or cows. The STEC O104:H4 strain has been found to be particularly sticky, making it likely able to cling on to leaves, seeds and other foodstuffs.
The EFSA said the number of EU countries that had received parts of the suspected lots is much larger than previously known and added: “It cannot be excluded that other member states and third countries were supplied.”
In western Germany, health officials are carrying out wide-scale E.coli tests in the municipality of Paderborn after renewed cases of the rare strain were reported among primary school pupils and canteen workers, shutting one school for a week. More than 800 pupils, teachers, supervisors and pensioners are being tested.
(Additional reporting by Charlie Dunmore in Brussels, Eric Kelsey in Berlin and Anna Yukhananov in Washington; editing by Jason Neely)
By Kate Kelland
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