The latest news from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the EU’s CDC, suggests that the massive outbreak of E. coli O104 is declining. The number of new cases being discovered has fallen, and the most recent onset of illness among confirmed cases was June 27. The toll is now 752 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome and an additional 3,016 cases of illness in 13 countries, for a total of 3,768 illnesses including 44 deaths. (The EU adjusted that total to remove 161 cases that were suspected but not lab-confirmed. It also did not include the five confirmed cases, one suspect case and one suspect death in the United States.)
But a simultaneous report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reveals that, despite the epidemic curve’s trending down, the outbreak can’t be considered over. The ultimate source — the contaminated seeds from which salad sprouts were grown — has been so widely distributed that no one really knows where they have gone or for how long they might remain for sale. One prediction, based on the probable package labeling, is that they could remain on shelves for three more years.
The technical report from EFSA is a stunning snapshot of the complexity of global food production. Here’s what the agency found:
The first wave of cases, in Germany in May, arose from a firm that grew and sold sprouts at wholesale. The sprouts from that farm would subsequently be linked to 41 separate clusters of cases; all of them could be traced back to that facility’s sprouts, resold as a produce item somewhere in Europe.
A second wave, in France in June, initially confounded investigators. Out of those 16 cases, 11 had attended the same event. They did eat sprouts there — but not sprouts from the German farm. Instead, the sprouts had been grown by the event’s catering firm, from seeds the company had bought at an everyday garden center.
That shifted the focus from the German farm’s practices to the seeds that both the farm and the caterer used. The German farm sold two blends of grown sprouts, spicy (grown from fenugreek and radish seeds and black and brown lentils) and mild (fenugreek and alfalfa seeds, adzuki beans and lentils). The French caterer had used three seed types: fenugreek, mustard and rocket (or roquette; what Americans call arugula). The only type in common with both companies and all the mixtures was fenugreek.
That discovery sent EU investigators in pursuit of fenugreek seeds back down the European food chain, in a rapid-fire search that deployed personnel from eight countries’ food agencies as well as the ECDC, World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They drafted a detailed 4-page questionnaire that fed data into Excel spreadsheets and a relational database. They crunched (and crunched and crunched) the numbers, and this is what emerged:
All of the seeds came from a single shipment that left a port in Egypt almost 2 years earlier, on Nov. 24, 2009.
The seeds took a tortuous path. That initial shipment — which was immense, 15,000 kg (33,000 lbs) — was containerized at the port of Damietta in Egypt, shipped by boat to Antwerp in Belgium, went by barge to Rotterdam in the Netherlands where it passed customs, and then was trucked to Germany. There, an importer broke up the shipment:
- 10,500 kg to a single German distributor;
- 3,550 kg to nine other German companies;
- 375 kg to a Spanish company;
- 250 kg to an Austrian distributor that sold the entire lot to a single Austrian company;
- and 400 kg to a company in England.
When the investigators followed the seeds’ sales into the companies’ records, they realized how much more complex the trail was going to get.
First, the German importer broke up the 10,500-kg shipment into multiple lots. Only 75 kg ended up at the German farm that sparked the first wave of illness. The rest went to 16 other companies. One of those 16 broke its shipment up further, selling the seeds on to 70 additional companies: 54 in Germany, 16 in 11 other countries within the EU.
That shows how widely distributed the seeds might be. The investigation results from the English firm show how granular the search will have to get. At the English firm, that 400-kg shipment was repackaged into envelopes of 50 gm each, a potential 8,000 packets.
By what can only be luck, the English company held back 305 kg of its shipment. It packaged 95 kg into 1,197 envelopes, and sold them to a French distributor. That distributor sent them to more than 200 garden centers all over France, in lots of 5 to 125 seed packets per firm.
That’s the situation as it now stands. The original shipment of seeds (lot 48088) has been recalled; recall notices have also been sent out for the lots as named by the various middlemen: 6832 for the original German importer and the UK firm; 0104350 for the German farm; DRG1041132/10 for the French company.
Note that each of those companies renumbered its wares, and then remember how many more companies these seeds were sold to. 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.
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Cite: European Food Safety Authority. Technical Report: Tracing seeds, in particular fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) seeds, in relation to the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O104:H4 2011 Outbreaks in Germany and France. EFSA, Parma, Italy. July 5, 2011.