A European taskforce has been assembled to pinpoint the source of any contaminated beansprouts after the same potentially deadly strain of German E.coli that killed scores has surfaced in an outbreak in France.
The announcements from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) came as French authorities said beansprouts were suspected as the source of an outbreak of E.coli 104:H4 in the Bordeaux region from earlire this month.
The pan-regional team will be led by scientists from the food safety watchdog and joined by experts from Germany, the UK, Italy and France, as well as specialists from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
EFSA spokesman Steve Pagani told FoodProductionDaily.com: “The first teleconference is being held this afternoon at which Member States will be nominating their representatives. Much has been learned following the German outbreak, and many of the processes put in place for Germany can now be used and leveraged at a European level.”
The group has been urged to get to grips with how the production of seeds, beansprouts and other sprouted seeds are organised in the European Union – as part of the probe into the recent outbreak of E.coli 0104:H4 originating in Germany that has so far killed 43 and sickened almost 4,000 people.
The scientists will coordinate the gathering and analysis of information that is logged through the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).
The Parma-based agency announced the formation of the expert panel in the wake of reports from French authorities of an E.coli outbreak in Bordeaux at the end of last week.
So far 10 victims in France are suffering from bloody diarrhoea, with five diagnosed with haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) – symptoms typically caused by Shiga toxin-producing E.coli.
Initial tests have found the Ecoli O104:H4 bacteria present in two of the cases, with French officials confirming it said this was the same strain as that responsible for the outbreak in Germany.
Epidemiological investigations found that a number of patients, who live in close proximity to each other, had attended an open day at a community centre in the Bègles on 8 June. Many were said to have eaten beansprouts scattered on various dishes.
“Investigations by French authorities into the Bordeaux E.coli outbreak are still ongoing and a possible link between the consumption of sprouts and the health effects observed is yet to be definitively established,” said an EFSA statement. “If confirmed, seeds could be seen as a common factor between the French outbreak and an outbreak in May in Germany associated with bean sprouts.”
UK firm linked with outbreak
France’s consumer affairs Minister, Frederic Lefebvre, linked the outbreak last Friday to the seeds of UK company Thompson and Morgan, as he confirmed sale of three seed types – mustard, fenugreek and rocket – had been stopped in the country.
The Ipswich-based seed firm told FoodProductionDaily.com it was aware of the “unsubstantiated link” between the outbreak and its products but noted the French Minister had also said that “no link between the E.coli symptoms and the eating of sprouting seeds has been established”.
Hundreds of thousands of packets of seeds have been sold in Europe and “to date, there have been no reported incidents of any problems either in France, the UK or anywhere else they are sold,” added Thompson and Morgan.
The firm said the confinement of the outbreak to a single event and area indicated that “something local in the Bordeaux area, or the way the product has been handled and grown, is responsible for the incident rather than our seeds”.
The UK Foods Standards Agency said it is currently testing seed samples from Thompson and Morgan. No cases of food poisoning linked to the French outbreak had been reported to date in the UK, said the body.
Both the FSA and its Irish counterpart have advised consumers against eating raw beansprouts.