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Europe Cancels Consumer Caution About Sprouts

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Tuesday dropped its consumer advisory against eating raw sprouts and growing sprouts from seed at home, and recommended consumers refer to the various national food safety agencies for specific guidance on sprouts. 

EFSA said the reason for canceling the advisory was that fenugreek seeds from Egypt, the most likely cause of the massive outbreak of E. coli 0104:H4 centered in Germany this spring, are no longer on the market.

The agency also said its Biological Hazards Panel, by request from the European Commission, is carrying out a risk assessment on the EU production chain for sprouts and sprouting seeds and will publish a scientific opinion “in the coming weeks.”

In a wrap-up report on the E. coli O104:H4 outbreak, which ended July 26, EFSA said there were at least 3,134 cases and 47 deaths. The cases include 778 instances of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication that causes kidney damage. 

The report also said another 119 cases and 4 deaths are suspected to be linked to the outbreak. 

E. coli O104:H4  was never detected in any of the batches of suspect fenugreek seeds, something that “is not unexpected,” according to EFSA, because it was possible the contaminated seeds were no longer in stock when sampling took place, or that the pathogen was present at such a low level that isolating the organism was not possible.

“However, this does not mean the enterobacteriaceae would not have been present in seeds and sprouted seeds,” the report explained. “Previous studies have shown enterobacteriaceae to be present on the surface of the tissue of the plants and that they can also be internalised within the plant (e.g. at primary production, through irrigating with contaminated water or application of organic fertilizer not properly treated and still containing enteric pathogens).

“In this regard, it is important to underline that a negative laboratory test does not prove the absence of a pathogen …” the EFSA experts wrote.

The EFSA report also states, “The preparation of fresh sprouted seeds seldom includes a step where bacterial contamination is eliminated. Hence, food preparation of fresh sprouted seeds is based on the understanding that they are sold as ready-to-eat, i.e. safe to eat as is, or following only minimal preparation. For fresh produce, this assumes and relies on a production process which prevents contamination and an ability to detect contamination when it occurs. These conditions have proven not to be satisfied in this case.”

Although initial reports characterized the outbreak strain as new, EFSA said that further information indicates there have been 11 previous cases of O104 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infection reported in Europe since 2004. The cases, typically linked to travel to the Middle East or northern Africa, include one in Austria in 2010,  one in Belgium in 2008, one in Denmark in in 2008,  one in Finland in 2010, one in France in 2004, one in Norway in 2006 and 3 in Norway in 2009), one  in Sweden in 2010 and one case of HUS in Italy in 2009.

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