European E. Coli Outbreaks Could Recur

The apparent source of contamination in the deadly E. coli outbreak in Europe—a single massive shipment of fenugreek seeds from Egypt—has been widely distributed throughout the continent, and new outbreaks or continued sporadic cases are likely until the expiration date of the seeds three years from now, according to a report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Meantime, the current outbreak seems to be winding down, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Parts of the initial shipment, a container holding 15,000 kg of contaminated seeds from Egypt, have reached numerous European countries, according to the EFSA report. These seeds were the source of sprouts that caused a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O104:H4 infection that killed more than 40 people and sickened more than 4,000, including more than 800 who contracted hemolytic uremic syndrome. The product is now so widely distributed that a recall would be complex, and the best hope of protection is the five-year shelf life of the seeds, which were originally shipped two years ago, the EFSA report indicated.

Epidemiologic analysis suggests that the STEC incidence is entering a “transition phase” from the main outbreak toward a risk of more clusters or continued sporadic cases, the ECDC said in an updated risk assessment July 12.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would end funding for the Microbiological Data Program, which tests about 15,000 samples of produce each year for pathogens, including STEC, according to a spokesperson for the House Committee on Agriculture. The findings of the program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, have been responsible for at least 19 product recalls in the past two years, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Action on the bill has not yet been taken up by the Senate.

In other U.S. news related to the outbreak, the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) confirmed that a man from that state died as a result of STEC infection.

“ADHS was notified in mid-June that the man was in a hospital with hemolytic uremic syndrome and had a history of travel to Germany. He died shortly thereafter. ADHS facilitated the transport of laboratory samples to the CDC for testing,” Catherine Foley, an ADHS epidemiologist, told Food Quality.

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