LONDON // A single shipment of fenugreek seeds from Egypt is the most likely source of a highly toxic E coli epidemic in Germany, European investigators said yesterday.
The outbreak has killed 49 people in Germany, while a smaller outbreak had also hit France.
The European Food Safety Authority said additional European Union member states and other countries had or may have received batches of suspect seeds and urged the European Commission to make "all efforts" to prevent any further consumer exposure.
Consumers should not eat sprouts or sprouted seeds unless they are thoroughly cooked, it said.
More than 4,100 people in Europe and North America have been infected in two outbreaks of E col, one in northern Germany and another around Bordeaux.
Almost all of those affected in the first outbreak, the deadliest on record, lived in Germany or had recently travelled there.
The food safety authority said: "The analysis of information from the French and German outbreaks leads to the conclusion that 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."
It said the contamination of the seeds with a 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," the food safety authority said, adding that investigations should be carried out in all countries that may have received seeds from the lots concerned.
EU government officials were meeting in Brussels yesterday to decide on their response to the investigations.
In a report on its investigations, the food safety authority said: "Given the possible severe health impact of exposure … it seems appropriate to consider all lots of fenugreek from the identified exporter as suspect."
The strain of E coli infections identified in the outbreaks, known as STEC O104:H4, can cause serious diarrhoea and, in severe cases, kidney failure or death.
The food safety authority said: "The contamination of seeds with the STEC O104:H4 strain reflects a production or distribution process which allowed contamination with faecal material of human and/or animal origin. 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 able to cling on to leaves, seeds and other foodstuffs.
The food safety authority said the number of EU countries that had received parts of the suspected lots is much larger than previously known. It said: "It cannot be excluded that other member states and third countries were supplied."
In western Germany, health officials have been carrying out wide-scale E coli tests in the municipality of Paderborn after renewed cases of the strain had been reported among primary school pupils and canteen workers, shutting one school for a week.
More than 800 pupils, teachers, supervisors and pensioners were being tested for the E coli strain.