Accusations, Trade, Politics and E. Coli

Accusations, Trade, Politics and E. Coli

By Hwaa Irfan

When the May 2011 outbreak of the E. coli strain O104:H4 took place in Germany, the issue was kept quiet until the fatalities started to mount, and Germany started to look for a get out clause. When fatalities spread to other European countries (many suffered from Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome (HUS)—a potentially fatal complication that affects the blood, kidneys and nervous system)., Germany had gone from bean sprouts, to and finally accused Spain when all European fatalities and E. coli infections could be traced back to Germany. It was blatently apparent that the accusation was xenophobic, and not scientific, but Spanish farmers took it personally anyway, and gave away their vegetables, which was gladly welcomed by the burgeoning Spanish unemployed. However, an injustice was committed, and Spanish farmers demanded compensation from Germany due to the millions of Euros lost in business.

Now the accusations have been redirected to another food source, and another country where the ‘Arab Spring is present, Egypt with the UN threatening to boycott all Egyptian seeds in a region where there has been no E. coli outbreak at a time when all countries around the world are hypersensitive about their exports!

By the 4th June, 12 E.U. countries had reported outbreaks, and a rare strain of E- Coli had been identified.

What must be noted is that 8 genes have been identified in the new strain to be anti-biotic resistant. This was discovered by scientists in both Germany and China, which means unequivocally that the new strain is a product of commercial/corporate farming methods.

Food Source

Bean sprouts were the first culprit when the death toll across Europe was 22 with 1,700 infected. This was after incorrectly blaming Spanish cucumbers.  The region identified was a bean sprout farm in Lower Saxony, in northern Germany.

This seemed like an acceptable assumption given that bean sprouts are nurtured under warm-wet conditions – great for bacteria. Alfalfa sprouts already have a track record in the U.S. where 140 people fell prey to salmonella which was confirmed by the Center of Disease Control. In fact there have been 30 outbreaks of salmonella and E.coli all of which could be traced back to the U.S., affecting 12, 000 people in the last 15 years, and then even then the real cause was never declared, and the plausible cause was directed to radish sprouts. In USDA’s information sheet, the possible causes were given as:

Salmonella or E. coli could be harbored in bird droppings, in manure applied to fields as fertilizer, in contaminated water that’s used to irrigate fields, or perhaps in dirt left over in improperly cleaned seed-sorting machinery. The pathogens might also live in droppings of rodents that eat seeds stored in bags, bins, or silos.”

Which places a question on what scientific basis was employed, if at all, to discern the cause of the E. Coli outbreak in Germany, and in Europe, a country which keeps on rejecting all the evidence stacked up against GM foods!

Research in 2002 – The U.K. contribution to the European Commission Coordinated Program for the Official Control of Foodstuffs explored microbiological examinations because:

–        “Raw ready-to-eat fruit and vegetables have been implicated as vehicles for transmission of infectious microorganisms particularly in Europe, United States, Canada and Japan…

–        They explored 3 bacteria including E. coli 0157, and found E. Coli in 0.3% of their samples of pre-cut fruit, sprouted seeds, and unpasteurized juice.

–        They further explored the source of the foods which were:

  – Belgium

  – Denmark

  – Germany

  – Greece

– Ireland

– Italy

– Netherlands

– Spain

More than one country (EU & Third country)

Third countries

  – Brazil

– China

– Costa Rica

– Cuba

– Ghana

– Israel

– Ivory Coast

  – South Africa

  – USA

  – Zimabwe

Research published (2004) in the International Journal for Food Microbiology by the Center for Food Safety at the American University of Georgia., commented:

“Isolating Escherichia coli O157:H7 from batches of alfalfa seeds used to produce sprouts implicated in human illness has been difficult, perhaps due to non-homogenous and very low-level contamination and inaccessibility of the pathogen entrapped in protected areas of the seed coat.”

  • Their findings:

“E. coli O157:H7 was detected in alfalfa seeds incubated at 37 degrees C for up to 8 weeks as effectively as in sprouts produced from the seeds.”

  • The findings from the outbreak in Germany:

Tainted bean sprouts had been traced to an organic farm in northern Germany. The owner claims not to have used cattle manure, nor any of the three dozen or so non-organic additives widely employed in organic farming. Apparently, the only ingredients were seeds and water.

Was this a thorough investigation?

Though it was acknowledged that the usual route is through animal feces/manure this probability was ruled out!


Bean sprouts were the first culprit when the death toll across Europe was 22 with 1,700 infected. This was after incorrectly blaming Spanish cucumbers.  The region identified was a bean sprout farm in the village of Steddorf, near the small town of Bienenbüttel, 40 miles south of Hamburg, Lower Saxony, in northern Germany. The owner of the farm said his sprouts were grown with nothing more than water and seeds.

By the 10th June, the outbreak had affected 12 European countries, but was mostly occurred in Germany at which point the German authorities concluded that bean and seed sprouts (including fenugreek, mung beans, lentils, adzuki beans and alfalfa) as the vehicle of the outbreak in Germany. Meanwhile, the Robert Koch Institute warned people in Germany not to eat raw bean and seed sprouts of any origin.

Germany the country that is perceived as and sees itself as the efficient scientific state was finding itself under fire, as a country that takes pleasure in criticizing others, for which they have a term for “Schadenfreude” was blamed for the millions of dollars lost in trade and trust because it could not pinpoint the source. Once that source was identified as a farm in Lower Saxony Moscow rescinded its ban.

“Damages in the whole of the EU have reached between €500 million and €600 million,” including a €65 million loss suffered by German farmers alone, Sonnleiter told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

By 28th June cases in Sweden involved people who had not travelled to Germany since May 01st 2011.

On 5 July, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a Task Force report which involved the tracking down of the possible source of the French and German outbreaks of E. coli O104:H4.

By the 01st July, the World Health Organization, WHO, advised against the consumption of bean sprouts unless cooked at 70 °C, or the use of bean sprout seeds until the investigation is completed.

Bean sprouts were the first culprit when the death toll across Europe was 22 with 1,700 infected. This was after incorrectly blaming Spanish cucumbers.  The region identified was a bean sprout farm in the village of Steddorf, near the small town of Bienenbüttel, 40 miles south of Hamburg, Lower Saxony, in northern Germany. The owner of the farm said his sprouts were grown with nothing more than water and seeds.

Fenugreek: In a July press release it stated:

“The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has today published its report into the possible source of the recent E. coli O104 outbreaks in Germany and France. In line with this report, the Food Standards Agency is confirming its current precautionary advice.

“The EFSA report concludes that a batch of fenugreek seeds, originally supplied from a company in Egypt to a German company, is the most likely link between the two outbreaks.

“However, evidence linking the two outbreaks to the implicated batch of fenugreek seeds is not definitive and investigations are continuing. EFSA has said because the risk of cross-contamination between different seeds cannot be ruled out..”.

“ ‘Samples of the implicated seeds from the company are currently being tested for E. coli O104:H4. However, the EFSA report emphasises that test results will not give the whole picture. Distribution records and epidemiological evidence must also be considered before the source of the outbreaks is confirmed.”

In the EFSA summary of the report:

“Six of the cases reported having eaten sprouts at the event on the 8th of June, and leftovers are being analysed. Outbreak investigation revealed that the suspected sprouts of fenugreek, rocket and mustard had been privately produced in small quantities by the organiser of the event from seeds bought at an approved garden centre, and were not imported from the sprout producer implicated in the outbreak in Germany.

The actual report is not removed from subjectivity as it states:

“Specifically, it supports the hypothesis that the outbreaks in Germany and France are linked, and are due to the import of fenugreek seeds, which became contaminated with STEC O104:H4 at some point prior to leaving the Importer.”

“The sprout producer in Germany was linked to 41 clusters, which received 75 kg fenugreek seeds which could be traced back to the import of a consignment (# 48088) of 15 000 kg which left Egypt by boat on the 24th of November 2009 (port of loading was Damietta).

“The consignment was sent in a customs’ sealed container. The boat arrived at Antwerp (port of discharge) and was sent by barge to Rotterdam (port of delivery) where the customs formalities took place. The customs’ sealed container was sent by truck in the afternoon of 14th of December to a company in Germany (The Importer), arriving there in the morning of the 15th of December. In Germany, the container was ‘customs cleared for free circulation’. The Importer redistributed 14 925 kg and retained 75 kg in storage.”

So the seeds were in German circulation for 18 months, with other imports taking place from another Egyptian company. The report acknowledges:

“A major difficulty and source of possible errors is that the items, their naming and/or identification numbers might change at each step of the whole supply chain, or errors might have occurred in the reporting. In addition, missing information on possible cross contamination due to handling such as repackaging and mixing, need to be taken into account when doing further trace forward. This becomes even more evident considering that several lots from

the same exporter were handled by the Importer during the same period and that, at least in Germany, it could be demonstrated that more than one lot of fenugreek seeds was used for the production of sprouts by Establishment A during the likeliest time of exposure to the consumer…”

In other words, anything can happen to a product along the food supply chain. Bearing in this mind, the focus was still solely on the seeds, as certain track back evidence is slow in coming from France and Germany. That focus has been all fenugreek seeds for the period 2009 -2011 from the same exporter. The report recommends:

  • That investigation be carried out by the exporting country, Egypt,
  • That all EU member countries complete a thorough track/trace-back investigation.
  • That a track/trace-back system should be developed, validated, and implemented in the E.U.

Commercial Agriculture and E. Coli.

In a 2005 report by the Canadian Institut de Recherche et de Développement en Agroenvironnement, Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, it was found that agricultural practice of using liquid pigs manure as a crop fertilizer to fruits and vegetables increased health concerns unsurprisingly.  Using the control of mineral fertilizers instead of liquid pigs manure over 3 years, it was found that there was a significant decrease of E-coli in the surface soil with a maximum of 56 to 70 days for the difference to become evident. However, at that time E.coli was not found in vegetable samples allowing liquid pigs manure to remain an acceptable “organic” method of fertilizing.

What level of investigation was carried out on the accused farm in Lower Saxony, Germany is not clear, but in a pilot Nitrogen project supported by the Lower Saxony Ministry for Nutrition, Agriculture and Forestry, explored the management of methods of fertilization which includes:

–        100 %, organic fertiliser except for liquid manure (slurry)

–        50 %, cattle slurry 60 % (spring, 40 % autumn)

–        pig slurry 70 % (spring) 50 % (autumn)

When American Boston farmer Stuart Levy, who also happens to be a professor of molecular biology and microbiology released his findings to the scientific community as far back 1976, the response was one of rejection. What Levy discovered through diligent study on his farm was the life cycle of drug resistant bacteria. Half of his chickens were given the typical diet of feed laced with low does antibiotics, whilst the other half had drug-free feed. It took only two days for the chickens to excrete faeces that contained E. coli  that was drug resistant to tetracycline. Three months later the E. coli excreted had also become resistant to antibiotics ampicillin, streptomycin, carbenacillin, and sulphonamides, and animals receiving drug free feed also began to excrete drug resistant strains of E. coli. In other words, this knowledge unheeded has been around for quite a while.

Pigs are scavengers, and will eat anything and thus is susceptible to parasites and infections which affect the consumer more than the animal itself, because all kinds of life forms make their homes inside of a pig’s stomach. We are told by health services that most of the illnesses that arise from eating pork is due to undercooking, but if the pork is cooked well, what one would be eating as well is the feces produced by the variety of worms that lives in the stomach of a pig. One can contract neurocystisercosis (from the feces of pork tapeworm) – worm infection of the brain. A main cause of seizures and leprosy, Trichinellosis (pork worm) Nausea, diarrhea , vomiting, aching joints, breathing problems, and possible death, or even cancer of the colon.

As recent as 2010 it was published in the Environmental Health Perspectives that drug resistant bacteria were found in the air downwind of a confined pig farm, which highlights how vulnerable people are, and how easily E. coli travels, so pointing the finger of blame might not be as easy as the European Commission hopes to achieve. However, the situation does open a window of opportunity to tackle the many avenues by which E. coli spreads, once there is a level of honesty that the spread cannot be contained, but it can be stopped by ending the activities which not only compromise human health, but also that of air, land, and sea.

Throwing blame distracts away from the core of the problem. In a study by the German Vechta University, it is noted that:

“High-intensity animal farming regions are characterised by the production of animal manure nutrients in surplus of what can sustainably be used on the agricultural land.”

In research carried out by the Centre for Food Toxicology, Centre of Food Sciences, Hannover, Germany, distribution of antibiotics was explored using samples of land fertilized by pig slurry. In four of the areas investigated, ‘”crusty” animal slurry was picked up from the topsoil and in addition soil samples were taken from 0-30 cm’.

Samples of pig slurry used in a study by Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency showed, that the degradation rate of drugs like tetracycline in liquid manure was slow at 50 % in 5 months. In a screening of 62 pig slurry samples 9 were found positive for tetracycline, which represents an environmental, and health hazard.

Ironically, it was a German study of the Technische Universität München from 2002 – 2005  that found that E. coli (n=613) from pigs manure was more resistant to drugs streptomycin, doxycycline, spectinomycin, cotrimoxazole, and chloramphenicol than E. coli (n=116) from sewage sludge.

The use of drugs, and the wrong type of fertilizers is what underlies high intensity commercial farming, not just as a means to supply food, but as a means to boost profits. This situation continues, as long as the health consequences are ‘reportedly’ low, and applying the term ‘organic’ to pig slurry is misinforming a section of the public that have the right to know.

As the EU over reacts and blames a whole nation for what may have been caused by 1 company, one wonders if the aim to ban all products from Egypt is about something more than just saving face so member states can be friends again!


Biberacher, M. et al. Nutrient Best Management Practices Need Regional Material Flow Management

For Soil Protection.”

“E Coli Outbreak: German Officials Identify Bean Sprouts As Likely Source.”

“EFSA Taskforce Report On E. Coli O104 Outbreaks/”

EFSA. “Tracing Seeds, In Particular Fenugreek (Trigonella Foenum-Graecum) Seeds, in

Relation to the Shiga Toxin-Producing E. Coli (STEC) O104:H4 2011 Outbreaks In Germany And France.”

“Farm Behind E. Coli Not Likely To Face Prosecution.”

Hamscher, G et al. “Tettracycline and Chlortetracycline Residues in Soil Fertilized with Liquid Manure.”

“Haughty Germany Due For Dose Of Humility After E. Coli Strain Is Traced To Its Own Sprouts.”

Little, C.L., and Mitchell, R.T. “European Commission Co-ordinated Programme for the Official Control of Foodstuffs for 2002:  Microbiological Examination of Pre-cut Fruit, Sprouted Seeds, and Unpasteurised Fruit and Vegetable Juices from Production and Retail Premises in the United Kingdom.

Malkawi, K. “No E. Coli Cases Reported in Jordan Region”

“Pilot Project for the Implementation of Reduced Nitrogen Fertilisation in Agricultural Enterprises in Lower Saxony.”

Wallop, H. “E.Coli: Germany Says It Might Not Be Bean Sprouts German Officials Are No Closer To Finding The Source Of The Deadly E.Coli Outbreak That Has Killed 22 People, After Admitting It Might Not Be The Bean Sprouts That They Blamed Only 24 Hours Earlier.”

WHO “Outbreaks Of E. Coli O104:H4 Infection.”

Wu, F.M. et al. “Factors Influencing The Detection And Enumeration Of Escherichia Coli O157:H7 On Alfalfa Seeds. Int J Food Microbiol. 2001 Dec 4;71(1):93-9.

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