A delegation from the European Union has been sent to Egypt to test seeds there for E. coli O104:H4, the strain of bacteria that caused the deadly outbreak that sickened more than 4,000 and killed 50 on the continent.
More than two months after investigations pointed to sprouted Egyptian fenugreek seeds as the source of the epidemic that began in Germany, Egypt is now allowing EU representatives into the country to search for hard evidence of contamination -- or lack thereof.
Following the outbreak, the EU placed a ban on the import of certain Egyptian sprouting seeds and beans. Egypt has soundly denied the need for this ban - which is likely to affect around 49,000 tonnes of seeds, according to the BBC. That's over 56 million Euros in value.
The country insists that its own experts have tested suspect supplies of fenugreek seeds and found no sign of the deadly bacteria. One news source from the country reported that these seeds were sold only in Holland, and not in France or Germany.
The team of EU investigators was originally scheduled to travel to Egypt last month, but was delayed by negotiations with the nation.
"The Egyptian government has asked a couple of questions to the European Union, and these questions have to be answered and they want to decide on the answers," Dr. Lothar Beutin of the National Reference Laboratory for E. coli at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin (BfR) explained to Food Safety News at the International Association of Food Protection Conference last month.
"All countries have their own dignity. Nobody likes to be blamed about things, so I think you have to understand that it's not always easy and Europe cannot just say 'OK, we'll take a flight and we'll come over and we'll open everything,' " said Dr. Mieke Uyttendale, director of the Laboratory for Food and Microbiological Preservation at the University of Gent. "It has to be negotiated and that's the policy and the way it goes," she told Food Safety News at the conference.
The European delegates arrived Monday, meeting with the Egyptian Minister of Agriculture and the Head of Egyptian Plant Quarantine before beginning their investigations, reported bikyamasr.
The team will visit the Minya, Fayoum and Beni Suef governorates, and will issue a report to each local government at the end of its tour there.
Finding the outbreak strain on sprout seeds would confirm them as the source of the outbreak, and would allow experts to pinpoint the exact suppliers from which the contaminated seeds came. However, not finding any of the dangerous bacteria on Egyptian seeds would not mean that the seeds didn't cause the outbreak, as all contaminated seeds may already have been sold, or random testing could overlook seeds carrying the bacteria.
Egypt sees the investigation as a chance to prove that seeds being produced now are safe for sale, and that the ban on these products should be lifted.
The European Commission will make its decision on whether or not to continue the embargo after it reviews the team's final report.