Tracing European E. coli outbreak to Egypt

Published online 10 July 2011

Hazem Zohny


First it was Spanish cucumbers then German beansprouts, but now the finger of blame points to Egyptian fenugreek seeds, used to produce bean sprouts, as the most likely culprit behind the recent outbreak of enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli, which as of 8 July has claimed at least 47 lives and infected over 4,000 people since early May 2011, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The initial suspicion of Spanish cucumbers as the contaminated foodstuff led the Egyptian Agriculture Export Council to predict an increase in vegetable exports to Europe in 2011. But in light of new evidence, the European Union has decided to suspend the importation of Egyptian sprouting seeds and beans instead.

According to Lucia de Luca, an information officer at EFSA, Egyptian fenugreek seeds are the two common elements in both E.coli outbreaks in France and Germany.

The Egyptian interim government has not taken this news well. One Egyptian channel — Al-Hayat — hosted Ali Suliman, head of the Central Administration for Quarantine and Salah Abdel Mo'men, deputy of the Agriculture Research Center, in Egypt, on its flagship talk-show Al-Hayat Al-Youm on 2 July. They pitted this as an Israeli conspiracy to sabotage Egyptian agriculture. The Egyptian ministry of agriculture posted a letter on its Facebook page repudiating EFSA's claim. "Scientifically, bacteria cannot live on the dry surface of [these] seeds from 2009 until the cases were discovered," reads the statement.

Kazem Zaki, an agriculture researcher at Minya University, Egypt, agrees. The dry packaging of such seeds makes it difficult for bacteria to survive this long he adds.

However, Craig Hedberg, a food-borne disease epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minnesota, says that E. coli "have the ability to adhere to plant materials and survive in dry environments for years."

Hedberg notes that even if a small number of E. coli were present on dried seeds, germination creates favourable conditions for the growth of bacteria. By the harvest time a large population of E. coli would be present.

The seeds were shipped out on 24 November, 2009, from the Egyptian port of Damietta in a batch numbered 48088. The cargo was unloaded in Antwerp then barged to Rotterdam, before finally arriving in Germany where 14,925 kg of Egyptian fenugreek were distributed across Europe.

The Egyptian ministry contends that the contamination did not occur in Egypt, but happened during the seeds' transportation, citing the lack of reports of E. Coli infection in Egypt as proof it did not originate in Egypt.

But Zaki says this is normal and expected. "It is very common for farms exporting to the European Union to export their entire harvest." None of these seeds would have been sold in Egypt.

But perhaps a more substantive argument from Egypt's ministry of agriculture is its insistence that the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed ((RASFF) found that the fenugreek seeds behind the cluster in France specifically have an expiry date of December 2013, while the suspected seeds from Egypt will expiry in November 2011.

Back tracing seeds

"What is unfortunate," says Hedburg, "is that it took quite so long to identify this source."

It remains unclear just how certain the connection to Egyptian grown fenugreek is — particularly given the contradictory claims to the seeds' expiry dates. However, the EFSA report emphasizes that while this batch is the "most likely common link," it still cannot exclude other batches imported from Egypt in 2010 and 2011.

Zaki says there is still no conclusive scientific proof, but only a "most likely source", as the EFSA report concludes. He acclaims this conclusion is premature and a result of public pressure on the European Union to identify the source of the outbreaks.

Growing reports have spread in Egypt of farmers resorting to raw sewage to irrigate their farms due to water scarcity. "It does seem possible that such irrigation techniques can lead to increased chances of infected crops with more virulent strains," says Laith Abu Raddad, an epidemiologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.

Additionally, a 2009 government report highlighted that the E. coli count in most water canals in Egypt exceeds safety limits prescribed by the World Health Organisation. Egypt's reputation as a safe source of agricultural produce and its reported US$720 million market may be irreparably damaged at this point.


  1. Egypt State of the Environment 2009 (2010)