A task force assembled hurriedly by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will try to track down whether British seeds are the common factor between 10 suspected E. coli illnesses in France and the massive outbreak in Germany associated with sprouts.

“In response to an urgent request from the European Commission, EFSA scientists are providing immediate assistance,” and will be joined by experts from the EC, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, as well as scientists from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organization, EFSA said in a news release Sunday.

Health authorities have said preliminary tests indicate that two of the people in France are infected with E. coli O104:H4, the same strain responsible for more than 4,800 illnesses and 44 deaths linked to German-grown sprouts.

Seven people were still in hospital in Bordeaux on Sunday, with one 78-year-old woman in serious condition, according to news reports from Europe. Five of the patients have been diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), EFSA reported.

French officials said an epidemiological investigation found that a number of the patients, who live in close proximity to each other, had attended an event in the community of Bègles near Bordeaux on June 8 and many were said to have eaten bean sprouts scattered on various dishes.

The French ministry of commerce said the sprouts had been grown from seeds supplied by a British company, Thompson & Morgan of Ipswich, and asked that fenugreek, mustard and rocket (arugula) seeds supplied by the firm be withdrawn from sale until test results were returned. The ministry cautioned that the link between the illnesses and the seeds was not definitive.

German authorities have said locally grown sprouts from an organic farm near Hamburg were the likely source of the E. coli O104 outbreak that began in May, and identified lentil, alfalfa, fenugreek and adzuki bean sprouts as possible culprits. That farm is no longer distributing its sprouts.

Thompson & Morgan, in response to the outbreak in France, said its seeds were sourced in Italy and packaged in England. The company said the connection being made by French officials was unsubstantiated, adding that it believed 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.”

Meanwhile, “no formal European alert has been launched at this point, one that would mean a ban on sales” of the sprout seeds, a spokesman for EC health commissioner John Dalli said over the weekend. However, “there is an exchange of information under way between France, Britain and Germany.”

Although no E. coli cases have been reported in the UK, the Food Standards Agency there advised “as a precaution” that sprouted seeds should only be eaten “if they are cooked thoroughly until steaming hot throughout — they should not be eaten raw.”

Likewise, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s chief executive, Alan Reilly, issued a statement over the weekend that warned, “Until we identify the precise source of this outbreak (in France), we are advising Irish consumers not to eat raw or uncooked bean sprouts and we are advising caterers not to serve raw bean sprouts. Despite extensive investigation across Germany the exact type or origin of contaminated beans/seeds has not yet been identified.” 

Raw sprouts are considered a risky food and have been recognized as a common cause of foodborne illness. The problem often is contaminated seeds, and antimicrobial treatments are recommended in both the seed production process and at sprouting facilities. Even then, it is not always possible to eliminate all pathogens from seeds.