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article imageE. coli outbreak in Europe linked to seeds from Egypt

By Lynn Herrmann     Jul 1, 2011 in Health
London - An E. coli outbreak which started in early May has infected more than 4,000 people in Europe and North American and scientists say the deadly outbreak, killing at least 48 people, could be linked to imported Egyptian fenugreek seeds.
A large outbreak of E. Coli centered in Germany, with a smaller cluster around Bordeaux, France, have been connected to sprouted seeds and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) notes in a report (pdf) the two outbreaks are likely connected for several reasons.
Clinically, the French and German cases are similar as the cases have been occurring in adults, mostly women. The majority of cases are being presented with haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a severe and sometimes deadly complication due to the E. coli. By June 28, 15 people in the Bordeaux area had contracted the infection and EFSA states three of the HUS patients there seem to have similar microbiological characteristics as the German outbreak, including the same antibiotic resistance profile.
In the French outbreak, nine of the cases reported eating sprouts (fenugreek, mustard and rucola)at an event on June 8. Because of the similarities in the two outbreaks, one of the initial hypotheses suggested seeds used for sprouting as the cause.
Sweden reports one case of the E. coli outbreak, but a link between Germany and France is unclear, and it is still under investigation.
If the link is confirmed, health officials warn future outbreaks could occur across the UK and elsewhere. Symptoms of the illness range from a mild intestinal disease, including serious diarrhea, to severe kidney complications which could lead to death.
The seed contamination could have occurred anywhere along the supply chain, from seed production to transportation to packaging to distribution. There is also the possibility of other contaminated seeds still available in and outside of the EU.
EFSA notes ongoing investigations, including epidemiological, microbiological and food trace-back and trace-forward, will be essential to confirm (or discard) the current assumption.
Currently, the trace-back investigation reveals fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt in 2009 or 2010 are implicated in the German and French outbreaks, although uncertainty of a common cause for all the infections exists due to no positive bacteriological results, according to EFSA. The health agency said the 2009 shipment of seeds appears connected to the French outbreak and the 2010 shipment “has been considered to be implicated in the German outbreak.”
EPSA stated an additional investigation of seed distribution has been urgently requested. The German organic seed company agaSAAT said it had distributed seeds British seed trader Thomson & Morgan, but had been cleared by health officials.
“We put our seeds under microbiological testing and there have been no positive tests for E.coli,” said Werner Arts, chief executive of agaSAAT, according to Reuters. “This has also been confirmed by German health authorities.”
For its part, Thomson & Morgan issued a statement saying it received seeds which had been sourced in Egypt and noted: “Further, we can confirm that this sprouting seed was then exclusively supplied into the French garden center market,” Reuters reports.
EFSA has encouraged an increased awareness among the EU’s clinical practitioners in order to quickly identify any new outbreaks.
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