After a lengthy trace back investigation, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a press release last week on July 5, 2011 concluding that one lot of fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt and used to produce sprouts is the most likely common link between the two outbreaks of E. coli O104:H4 that occurred in France and Germany. Based on those findings, EFSA recommended to the European Commission that all efforts be made to prevent any further consumer exposure to the suspect seeds.

In response to EFSA’s press release, European Union (EU) Health Commissioner John Dalli stated, “The report published today leads us to the withdrawing of some Egyptian seeds from the EU market and to a temporary ban on imports of all seeds and beans originating from that country.” Accordingly, the EU has banned imports of Egyptian fenugreek seeds until October 31, 2011. In addition, the EU directed its member nations to destroy all seeds from “one Egyptian exporter” received between 2009 and 2011.

However, despite EFSA’s report, Egyptian Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid maintains that the Egyptian fenugreek seeds were not contaminated. The minister cited lab tests indicating that the seeds produced by the Egyptian exporter did not contain the E. coli strain responsible for the outbreak. Moreover, the EU claimed that the seeds responsible for the outbreak were imported from Egypt in November 2009. Egyptian officials argue that the E. coli bacteria could not remain on the surface of dried seed from 2009 until 2011.  

Instead, the Egyptian ministry contends that the contamination could have occurred during the repackaging process or through contaminated water used for sprouting the seeds.

The Egyptian fenugreek seeds in question were sent to one large German distributor, and later sold to 70 different companies, 54 of which are located in Germany where the most people became ill.