E.coli: Rapid response in a crisis

Feature story
11 July 2012

Between the beginning of May and the end of July 2011, there was anoutbreak of Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli (STEC) in Germany. On 24 June 2011, the French authorities also reported an outbreak inthe region of Bordeaux.

Across the EU more than 3,100 cases of bloody diarrhoea and more than 850 of haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious condition that can lead to kidney failure, were reported during the two outbreaks; there were 53 confirmed deaths. The outbreak in Germany was the country’s biggest food-borne bacterial outbreak for 60 years. Initially the outbreak of E. coli O104:H4, a rare strain, was linked through epidemiological investigations to the consumption of fresh salad vegetables. Further investigations identified seed sprouts as the most probable source.

EFSA liaised with German risk managers and assessors, the European Commission, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). The Authority issued a joint statement with ECDC that provided information on STEC infection and transmission modes and advice on how to avoid infection.

EFSA sent senior scientific staff to Germany to provide assistance on data collection and epidemiological analysis. The exchange of information between Member States was facilitated by EFSA through its Advisory Forum and network of Focal Points.

On 6 June, the European Commission asked EFSA to provide scientific assistance and advice on the outbreak. EFSA implemented its established urgent response procedures and published a fast-track risk assessment on the risks to public health from the consumption of raw vegetables. It also provided advice on options to mitigate the risks of food contamination and human infection. On the same day, EFSA published a technical report with ECDC on the prevalence of STEC in humans, food and animals.

On 24 June, just over a month after the German outbreak had been first reported, the French authorities reported a cluster of cases of patients suffering from bloody diarrhoea. Bacteriological tests identified the probable cause as E. coli O104:H4 – the same rare strain that was responsible for the outbreak in Germany.

EFSA’s response was two-fold. It jointly prepared with ECDC a rapid risk assessment of the two outbreaks which concluded that fenugreek sprouts were the most likely connection; and, in response to an urgent request from the Commission, it set up a Task Force to trace back the implicated seeds through the EU supply and distribution chain.

The Task Force, which included specialists from Member States and the Commission, and scientists from ECDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), delivered its report on 5 July, concluding that one lot of fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt and used to produce sprouts was the likely link between the two outbreaks.

Based on the Task Force findings, EFSA recommended to the Commission that all efforts be made to prevent further consumer exposure to the suspect seeds and that forward-tracing be carried out in all countries which may have received seeds from the suspect lots. After the Task Force published its report, the EU was able to take immediate measures to protect European consumers.