This much is certain about the international sprout E. coli outbreaks that have ravaged, mostly, Germany and France in past months: thousands ill, tens of millions have been spent on the medical and public health response, and all have been linked to fenugreek sprout seeds from Egypt. The unsettling uncertainty, though, is whether the contaminated fenugreek seeds will rear their lethal heads again, and where.
William Neuman’s article this morning in the New York Times, titled “Search is Underway for Tainted Sprout Seeds,” details the international seed hunt. Investigators are focused on a particular shipment of 16,000 pounds of seed that occurred in 2009, in which dozens of companies in at least 12 European countries acquired seeds, apparently, from the same lot of seed now determined to have been the source of the separate E. coli O104:H4 outbreaks in Germany and France.
Since the suspect seeds were distributed approximately 2 years ago, there is a chance that most are no longer in the marketplace. Question, though, how many O104:H4 illnesses internationally since then are attributable to the seeds, when not enough epidemiological data existed to finger them? But fenugreek seeds have a very long shelf life–as many as five years, and apparently the seeds can be frozen.
Pray for good record-keeping and traceability, although that may or may not be a realistic expectation. In 2004, The California Food and Drug Branch audited most of the sprout producing businesses in California and found that as many as 30 percent lacked the ability to fully trace finished product “from farm to fork.” Have we seen the last E. coli O104:H4 illness linked to these seeds?