EU Member States have endorsed strict hygiene measures for ready-to-eat sprouted seeds to prevent incidents such as the deadly E.coli O104 outbreak in Germany and France last year.
The Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health Section: Biological Safety of the Food Chain approved the measures, which were proposed by the European Commission (EC).
The actions include tightening traceability requirements for seeds intended for sprouts and sprout production and approval by Member States of all sprouts producing plants after hygiene compliance checks by competent authorities.
The EC has also called for testing for the absence of pathogenic E.coli in sprouts on the market for each batch of seeds intended for sprouting.
The package of measures has been issued in the wake of an opinion by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on risks linked to sprouts production. It also follows the results of a comprehensive consultation of sprouts producers and national competent authorities.
During the E.coli crisis linked to sprouts last year, the EC took emergency measures blocking the import of seeds for sprouting coming from Egypt, immediately stopping possible exposure and risk to humans.
Today’s measures are seen as a second step in reinforcing the safety of sprout production within the EU. They were foreshadowed in the E.coli lessons learned paper published by the EC in July 2012 and an annual report on the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed.
More than 30 deaths
The 2011 E.coli outbreak in Germany involved 3,000 cases and more than 30 deaths and preceded one in France. Both were linked to imports of Egyptian fenugreek seeds.
Commenting on the outbreak last year, a report from EFSA’s panel on biological hazards (BIOHAZ) said sprouted seeds, posed serious health risks as they were often eaten raw or after minimal processing.
In addition, experts said more needed to be done to strengthen microbiological testing for sprouted seeds, as it was unclear whether existing methods would be adequate.
“Microbiological testing alone may convey a false sense of security due to the statistical limitation of sampling plans,” said the report. “A negative sampling result does not ensure the absence of the pathogen in the tested lot, particularly where it is present at low or heterogeneous prevalence.”
“It is currently not possible to evaluate the extent of public health protection provided by specific microbiological criteria for seeds and sprouted seeds.”
Problems also existed in imposing adequate traceability methods that could assist in the event of a recall of sprouted seeds, the report added.