LONDON (AP) - Egyptian sprout seeds blamed for Europe's massive and deadly E. coli outbreak are still on the market and were shipped to more countries than was previously believed, including Austria, Britain and Spain, officials said Tuesday.
The European Food Safety Authority confirmed in a report that one lot of contaminated fenugreek seeds from Egypt was probably the source of the recent food poisoning outbreaks in Germany and France, but the number of European countries that received parts of the suspected lot is "much larger than previously known."
Fenugreek seeds from the suspect Egyptian lot - about 15,000 kilograms - were imported to one large German distributor, the agency said. Those seeds were then sold to 70 different companies, 54 of them in Germany, the center of the outbreak, and to 16 companies in 11 other European countries.
Fenugreek is a clover-shaped plant whose leaves are commonly used as an herb and also in Indian curries. The seeds are often sold dried - and if they are contaminated with E. coli, the bacteria can survive for years.
Tracing exactly where the seeds were sold could take weeks, it said. In Germany, the fenugreek seeds were sold in mixed spice packages with lentil sprouts.
European food safety officials could not rule out that other lots of Egyptian fenugreek seeds from the same exporter weren't also tainted. Last year, Europe imported about 3,000 tonnes of fenugreek seeds.
Officials previously believed that sales had centered primarily on Germany and France but until now had little detailed information on where the seeds were shipped.
So far, the strain has killed 51 people, including 49 deaths in Germany and one each in Sweden and the U.S.
More than 4,000 people in Germany have fallen sick since the outbreak was detected in May, including 851 who have developed a serious complication that can lead to kidney failure. The same bacteria was also responsible for a much smaller outbreak in France last month.
Scientists said it was possible only a small part of the lot of Egyptian fenugreek seeds were infected, which might explain why there weren't more cases given how widely they were sold. "You could have some seeds contaminated but not necessarily the whole batch," said Ian Henderson, a professor of microbial biology at the University of Birmingham.
He said it would be difficult to find the culprit bacteria on the seeds since large quantities only appear once the sprouts begin to grow. "It could be like searching for a needle in a haystack," he said.
Experts said many of the infected seeds may already have been used but that some were still in the food chain. The report said it was possible other lots of fenugreek seeds from the same Egyptian exporter might also be contaminated.
Some suspect there have been numerous undetected E. coli cases across Europe. "Most people who get this won't get that ill and it won't be diagnosed," said Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia.
He said that the outbreaks were caught because there were large numbers of people getting sick at the same time, in unusual circumstances. But if people bought and ate infected sprouts on their own - like from a 50 gram packet from a garden centre, as was the case in the French outbreak - their illness would probably be missed.
Health officials warn there could be further outbreaks of the lethal E. coli strain since the tainted fenugreek seeds are still for sale. Experts say people should not grow or eat their own sprouts and that all sprouts should be thoroughly cooked before being eaten.
"If people do not eat raw sprouts, we might not see many new infections," Hunter said. "But people are very good at ignoring public health advice," he said. "I wouldn't bet against more outbreaks."
Associated Press writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.