European E. coli: Why more outbreaks could happen


Quick, I need a German word to describe "A situation that is fascinating from a detached perspective and simultaneously disturbing from a more personal perspective." Anybody?

Here's the inspiration: You'll remember that Europe has experienced a major outbreak of Escherichia coli O104:H4, a difficult-to-treat strain of E. coli that has killed 44 people and sickened more than 3,500. Tracking the source of an outbreak like that isn't easy, and you can see that in the way the finger of blame has shifted around from Spanish cucumbers, to tainted German sprouts, back to the cucumbers, then settling back on the sprouts. Except, here's where things get fascinating (and disturbing). Sprouts do seem to be the culprit, but not in the way you'd expect—i.e., one farm growing E. coli ridden sprouts. All the confusion surrounding the source of this outbreak seems to stem from the fact that the outbreak can be traced to seeds grown in many different places. My favorite Scary Disease Girl, Maryn McKenna, explains:

The first wave of cases, in Germany in May, arose from a firm that grew and sold sprouts at wholesale … A second wave, in France in June, initially confounded investigators. Out of those 16 cases, 11 had attended the same event. They did eat sprouts there — but not sprouts from the German farm. Instead, the sprouts had been grown by the event's catering firm, from seeds the company had bought at an everyday garden center.

That shifted the focus from the German farm's practices to the seeds that both the farm and the caterer used. The German farm sold two blends of grown sprouts, spicy (grown from fenugreek and radish seeds and black and brown lentils) and mild (fenugreek and alfalfa seeds, adzuki beans and lentils). The French caterer had used three seed types: fenugreek, mustard and rocket (or roquette; what Americans call arugula). The only type in common with both companies and all the mixtures was fenugreek. … All of the seeds came from a single shipment that left a port in Egypt almost 2 years earlier, on Nov. 24, 2009.

If you read McKenna's story, you'll find that those fenugreek seeds have, by now, been sold and re-sold—their shipping lots numbered and re-numbered—in countries all over Europe. Recalling them all is pretty much impossible. And, assuming the seeds really are the culprit, that means another outbreak could pop up anywhere. In fact, McKenna says the only thing anybody can really do about the seeds is wait for them to expire, which is when they'll probably be taken off of store shelves—which won't happen for another three years.

Fenugreek seeds, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from fotoosvanrobin's photostream