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July 04, 2011

EU Bans Some Egyptian Seed Imports

The European Union has banned the importation of some seeds from Egypt after concluding that a single shipment of fenugreek seeds from the country is the most likely source of the virulent E. coli bacteria that has killed at least 49 people.

The EU imposed the ban Tuesday after its food safety agency said that a batch of fenugreek seeds imported in 2009 is the likely link between the large E. coli outbreak in northern Germany and the much smaller one near the French city of Bordeaux. But officials said they could not rule out that other lots of fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt since 2009 could be implicated as well.

The EU said that all fenugreek seeds exported to Europe in the last two years by the unnamed company cited as the source of the contaminated seeds must be withheld from the market, tested and then destroyed.

The ban on further seed imports extends to October 31. The EU said that last year it imported about 49,000 tons of the types of seeds from Egypt that are covered by the ban, with a value of more than $81 million.

The food safety agency said that contamination of the seeds that have proved deadly occurred some time before the seeds left the German importer. In turn, the seeds were planted, many of them at a northern German organic farm, and consumers ate the sprouts.

The safety officials urged any countries that imported the seeds to trace what happened to the shipments to prevent further spread of the deadly bacteria. It also advised consumers against growing the sprouts and to avoid eating them unless they are thoroughly cooked.

The deadly bacteria has sickened more than 4,000 people in 16 countries, mostly in Germany, where all but two of the deaths have occurred.

The food safety agency said that fecal matter, from humans or animals, contaminated the seeds. But the officials said they did not know where that occurred.

Aside from producing sprouts, fenugreek seeds are often used in curry sauces and spice mixes. Fenugreek leaves are commonly used as an herb.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.