E-coli outbreaks in Europe

Posted on Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Following the recent outbreak of e-coli in France, which it is alleged originated from a batch of sprouting seeds sold by Thompson and Morgan, the popular UK seed and plant provider has withdrawn the following seeds from sale, and recommends that if you already own these seeds that you do not grow or consume them:

  • Sprouting Seeds Rocket
  • Sprouting Seeds White Mustard
  • Sprouting Seeds Fenugreek
  • Sprouting Seeds Sandwich Mix
  • Sprouting Seeds Salad Sprouts Mix

In light of this outbreak, and its potential source, we decided to find out a bit more about e-coli bacteria, how seeds and crops can become infected by it and what the real risks are to consumers:

The e-coli (or, to give it its full name, Escherichia coli) bacteria is a single celled organism which usually exists harmlessly within the human digestive tract. E-coli belongs to a group of organisms which are the oldest (in evolutionary terms), simplest, physically smallest and most abundant organisms in the world. In optimal conditions, e-coli populations can double in size every 20 minutes. This is a life form which is far more successful than mankind!

The e-coli bacteria currently affecting Europe is particularly aggressive as it has similar properties to dysentery, however it is believed that some people can carry the bacteria without any negative affects. For those who are susceptible to this strain of e-coli, it can cause very serious symptoms including bloody diarrhea, produce toxins which infect the blood, kidneys and nervous system, and may sometimes be fatal (although most people make a full recovery).

E-coli can survive within the harshest of conditions, so pretty much anything can be contaminated, including seeds and food products. Contamination of seeds or crops can occur in a number of ways, for example:

  • From coming into contact with contaminated manure or water.
  • From contaminants in the production and processing environments.
  • During the packing process (potentially as a result of poor human sanitation).

The irradiation of seeds removes 99.999% of e-coli within them, however this is not currently a process approved by organic production standards. Alternatively, seeds can be chlorine treated, which kills many e-coli infections, although it has been suggested that an ancient Japanese tradition of soaking seeds in vinegar may be more effective. There is an argument that organic growing can also increase the likelihood of crops being infected by e-coli and other pathogens, due to the use of farmyard manure as a fertiliser (the fresher the manure, the higher the risk) and the absence of preservatives; however studies so far have been inconclusive.

Good hygiene should generally be sufficient to protect you from the bacteria. Wash food thoroughly, and wash your hands both before and after handling it. Maintain good hygiene with your food preparation implements, particularly ensuring you don’t use a chopping board for fruit and veg which you have just used for meat. Cook food thoroughly, ensuring it is piping hot to the centre, and ensure chilled food is kept in the fridge, not out on the work surface – high or low temperatures will remove, or at least slow the growth of, bacteria, whereas room temperature is a perfect incubation environment!

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