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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Was the German E. coli O104:H4 Outbreak Caused by Sprouts?

Bean-Sprouts-German.jpgFirst it was Spanish cucumbers – but also tomatoes or lettuce.  Even for a time slugs were thought to be the vector.  A few days ago an Italian official suggected it might well be meat.  So, I am taking it with several grains of salt, associated press reporter Tomislav Skaro report from Hamburg this morning that the Lower Saxony agriculture ministry was sending an alert Sunday warning people to stop eating the sprouts, which are often used in mixed salads, ministry spokesman Gert Hahne told The Associated Press.

“Bean sprouts have been identified as the product that likely caused the outbreak,” Hahne said. “Many restaurants that suffered from an E. coli outbreak had those sprouts delivered.”

Hahne said the sprouts were grown on a farm in Lower Saxony in northern Germany. He did not elaborate but planned a news conference later Sunday. Hahne said while official test results have not yet conclusively shown that the Lower Saxony-grown sprouts were to blame, “all indications speak to them being” the cause.

According to the New York Times an employee of the farm has been ill with E. coli presumably linked to the outbreak.  Bean, broccoli, pea, chickpea, garlic, lentil, mung bean and radish sprouts were impounded.

However, authorities have kept their warning against eating tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce.

The head of Germany’s national disease control center raised the death toll to 22 Sunday — 21 people in Germany and one in Sweden — and said another 2,153 people in Germany have been sickened. That figure includes 627 people who have developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. The World Health Organization said 10 other European nations and the U.S. have reported a total of 90 other victims.

I seem to be constantly updating this chart as more and more outbreaks and illnesses (just for the U.S.) are reported.

Year Type Pathogen Cases

1990 Alfalfa S. Anatum 15

1995 Alfalfa S. Stanley 128

1995 Alfalfa S. Newport 133

1995 Alfalfa S. Newport 69

1996 Alfalfa S. Stanley 30

1996 Alfalfa S. Montevideo 650

1997 Alfalfa S. Infantis 109

1997 Alfalfa E. coli O157:H7 108

1997 Alfalfa S. Senftenberg 60

1997 Alfalfa S. Meleagridis 78

1998 Alfalfa S. Havana 40

1998 Alfalfa E. coli O157:NM 8

1999 Alfalfa S. Mbandaka 83

1999 Alfalfa S. Typhimurium 119

1999 Alfalfa S. Muenchen 61

1999 Alfalfa S. paratyphi B 51

1999 Alfalfa Salmonella spp. 34

1999 Alfalfa S. Muenchen 38

1999 Clover S. Saintpaul 36

2000 Mung S. Enteritidis 75

2000 Mung S. Enteritidis 12

2001 Alfalfa S. Kottbus 32

2001 Alfalfa Salmonella spp. 22

2001 Mung S. Enteritidis 84

2002 Alfalfa E. coli O157:H7 7

2003 Alfalfa S. Saintpaul 9

2003 Alfalfa S. Chester 26

2003 Alfalfa E. coli O157:H7 7

2003 Alfalfa S. Saintpaul 16

2003 Alfalfa E. coli O157:NM 13

2004 Alfalfa Salmonella spp. 12

2005 Alfalfa E. coli O157:H7 1

2005 Mung Salmonella spp. 648

2006 Bean S. Braenderup 4

2008 Alfalfa S. Typhimurium 13

2009 Alfalfa S. Saintpaul 6

2009 Alfalfa S. Saintpaul 235

2010 Alfalfa S. Newport 43

2010 Alfalfa S. I 4,[5],12:i:- 112

2011 Clover S. Newport 6

*Thanks to the CDC, Dr. Ben Chapman and Oregon DOH.

From the CDC:  Sprouts Not Healthy Food for Everyone

Children, the elderly, and persons whose immune systems are not functioning well should not eat raw sprouts, because current treatments of seeds and sprouts cannot get rid of all bacteria present.

Persons who are at high risk for complications from foodborne illness should probably not eat raw sprouts, according to an article in the current issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, CDC’s peer-reviewed journal, which tracks new and reemerging infectious diseases worldwide.

Although sprouts are often considered a “health food,” the warm, humid conditions needed for growing sprouts from seeds are also ideal for bacteria to flourish. Salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria can grow to high levels without affecting the appearance of the sprouts.

Researchers have treated both seeds and sprouts with heat or washed them in solutions of chlorine, alcohol, and other chemicals. Some of these disinfectants reduced the levels of bacteria, but a potential hazard remained, especially for persons with weak immune systems. High temperatures that would kill the bacteria on the seeds would also keep them from sprouting. Until an effective way is found to prevent illness from sprouts, they should be eaten with caution, if at all.

  • Doc Mudd

    When in doubt…blame the sprout (it’s always been a pretty good guess, anyway).
    “Hahne said while official test results have not yet conclusively shown that the Lower Saxony-grown sprouts were to blame, “all indications speak to them being” the cause.”
    “However, authorities have kept their warning against eating tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce.”
    Sprouts, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, slugs, meat, meteorites…clearly smug EU authorities are not up to the task of diagnosing this outbreak…and, so, they cannot effectively prevent the next outbreak. They also cannot restore the lives lost or health compromised in this outbreak…or the next…or the next.
    A predictable result when romantic public opinion is given priority over practical applied food science.
    The Europeans’ popular neo-Luddite foodie policies are unsafe. Imagine that; superstition and woo don’t work when the chips are down – who’d a thunk it? Won’t work out any differently in America, either. We will have to learn that the hard way ourselves, likely as not.

  • Janice Boase

    I certainly do hope that they have the cause determined. What a tragedy for the people of Germany. For more details about sprout related outbreaks, visit http://www.outbreakdatabase.com. Use the vehicle search term, sprouts.

  • Mary

    Yeah, this story has changed so many times it’s really hard to trust the new version.
    Are 80-year-old ladies really eating that many sprouts? I don’t think anyone in my family over 60 ever ate one.

  • Doc Mudd

    Oops, I got a little too far ahead of the Germans when I facetiously suggested meteorites as a cause of the outbreak – but I was on the right track…biogas facilities are now being proposed as a source. Seriously.
    Seems they can afford the luxury of politicizing absolutely everything, even a fatal food poisoning outbreak of historic proportion while it is still ongoing. The Germans have never been guilty of excessive compassion, but scientific rigor…where the heck has that disappeared to?
    The legacy of Robert Koch (of Koch’s Postulates fame) stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the prevailing medical/epidemiologic circus in his homeland of Germany. A sad turn of events.

  • Thank you Bill for drawing attention to the contamination problems associated with alfalfa sprouts.
    Of the high-risk foods that CFI discusses, it is always difficult to convey to people the idea that sprouts, which are an eye-appealing garnish, can carry deadly pathogens capable of causing serious illness and death.
    Obviously, CFI is distressed with the recent news from Germany — E. coli O104:H4, like other non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E.colis (STECs), can cause serious illness! We hope, given the scope and severity of this outbreak, that the United States will re-evaluate its position about non-O157 E. coli strains and declare these deadly pathogens as adulterants in our food. Without a public declaration, our US food oversight agencies cannot stop the shipment or sale of food contaminated with non-O157 STECs, yet most Americans assume that its U.S. food agencies are monitoring our food supply for deadly pathogen,s like E. coli O104:H4.
    It’s time to change the status quo and move forward with a standard that includes the deadly non-O157:H7 STEC strains.
    Thank you.
    Pat Buck

  • Minkpuppy

    Seriously, biogas facilities? Interesting theory though. If the fermenters are providing a selective media for bugs like this one, there’s needs to be research into it instead of just blinding applying the fertilizers produced and assuming they’re safe. I have questions about the bacteria used in GM labs also–we could be breeding all kinds of weird things and operating under the assumption that it’s OK.