Egyptian fenugreek seeds suspected by European food inspectors to have caused a deadly E. coli outbreak were not contaminated, the Egyptian agriculture minister said Wednesday, citing lab tests.
The European Food Safety Authority has said one lot of fenugreek seeds from Egypt was probably the source of the recent food poisoning outbreaks in Germany and France. The EU has banned imports of Egyptian fenugreek seeds until Oct. 31 and directed its members destroy all seeds from "one Egyptian exporter" received between 2009 and 2011.
However, Egyptian Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid said lab tests of the seeds produced by that exporter showed the E. coli strain was not present. He did not elaborate. Officials have not released the name of the exporter.
Fenugreek seeds from the suspect Egyptian lot _ about 15,000 kilograms _ were sent 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.
So far, the strain has killed 51 people, including 49 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 is possible only a small part of the lot was infected, which might explain why there weren't more cases given how widely they were sold.