European investigators fitting together the puzzle pieces of devastating E. coli outbreaks in Germany and France cautiously identified a likely source Wednesday: contaminated fenugreek seeds from Egypt.
Officials also said that the seeds seemed to have entered Europe through a single German importer, which acted as a distributor to other companies.
A report by the European Food Safety Authority said that sprouts grown from fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt in 2009 and 2010 "are implicated in both outbreaks." But it added that "there is still much uncertainty about whether this is truly the common cause of the infections" because tests on the seeds had not yet found any of the rare and deadly strain of E. coli. Food safety experts say, however, that the bacteria can contaminate one seed in thousands and that it is very difficult to isolate in seed samples.
The devastating E. coli outbreak first surfaced in Germany in early May, eventually striking more than 4,000 people, nearly all of whom lived in Germany or had traveled there. The bacteria cause acute diarrhea and, in severe cases, kidney failure. At least 48 people died, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. The German authorities concluded the outbreak was caused by contaminated sprouts produced by a grower in Germany.
As the German outbreak began to wane in mid-June, a fresh wave of illness involving the same E. coli strain was identified in the Bordeaux region of France. The French authorities said many of the people who fell ill had eaten sprouts from a mix of three varieties, including fenugreek.