49 people in Europe — 48 in Germany, 1 in Sweden — have died in the deadly outbreak of highly toxic E. Coli – STEC O104:H4 that began at the end of May more than 3,500 taken ill. A 78-year-old Frenchwoman in Bordeaux who died this month from a kidney disease caused by E. coli was not linked to the highly deadly strain, though, say French health officials.
German health officials at first blamed Spanish cucumbers before tracing the bacteria to bean sprouts grown on an organic farm in Bienenbüttel, southeast of Hamburg, where the outbreak has been centered. Then, late last month, a smaller E. Coli outbreak occurred in the Bordeaux region of France. European health officials have now said that fenugreek seeds imported from one Egyptian company in 2009 are the cause, says the BBC. Subsequently, the European Union banned the import of fenugreek seeds “for sprouting” from Egypt until October 31.
But other batches of seeds imported from 2009 – 2011 could also be contaminated, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The contamination of the seeds reflects “a production or distribution process which allowed contamination with fecal material of human and/or animal origin,” says the EFSA. However, the EFSA also says that “Where exactly this took place is still an open question.”
In 2010, about 49,000 tons of the types of seeds affected by the ban were imported from Egypt, for a total value of more than $81 million (56 million euros).
Further E. Coli outbreaks are still possible because the contents of original 10,500-kg shipment of fenugreek seeds that left Egypt on November 24, 2009, have been widely dispersed, with the seeds divided into different lots that have been shipped to distributors in different countries, who then repackaged the seeds before sending them out to garden centers and stores throughout Europe. As As Mary McKenna writes on Wired,
If the paper trail for each company is not perfect, up and back along the supply chain, then the identity of the contaminated seeds will have been lost, and they will remain on the shelf as a potential risk to anyone who might grow them for raw sprouts and eat them. In the end, the only protection may be the seeds’ own shelf life, which should be 5 years from original packaging. They were first shipped 2 years ago. If they were properly labeled, that means there are 3 years to go.
There’s a further complication. In their report, EFSA points out that the original shipper in Egypt sold other large lots to the original German importer between 2008 and 2011, totaling at least 22,000 kg and probably more. At the same time, that same importer bought yet more fenugreek from a different Egyptian company. Just in 2010, according to the report, EU countries bought 77 metric tons (77,000 kg) of fenugreek seed just from Egypt.
If that original Egyptian supplier had an ongoing contamination problem — or worse, if the contamination problem extends beyond one company to an entire growing area — it is possible that this E. coli outbreak will not be over for a very long time.
It’s all a bit mind-boggling to contemplate the extent of the “tortuous path” of the contaminated fenugreek seeds. In an age when such global commerce is the norm, it’s potentially become easier than ever for something like the deadly E. Coli outbreak in Europe to happen, anywhere in the world — and it’s definitely becoming more necessary than ever to know about the origins of the food we eat, down to the seeds it’s grown from.
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Photo of fenugreek seeds by FotoosVanRobin