French lay blame on British seeds for E. coli outbreak

Minister calls for products to be withdrawn from sale, but admits 'no definitive link' to illness

Seeds from one of Britain's biggest mail order seed companies may have been linked to an E. coli outbreak in France, according to claims by Frédéric Lefebvre, the French secretary of state for consumer affairs.

He suggested that seed sprouts sold by the British company Thompson & Morgan were linked to eight suspected cases of E. coli poisoning in Bordeaux, south-western France. Thompson & Morgan said it sold "thousands of packets of seeds and has had no reported problems".

While officials said tests showed two people were infected by the same strain of E. coli as that found recently in Germany, they have not said whether there is a link between the two outbreaks.

Mr Lefebvre called on Friday for the company's mustard and rocket seed sprouts to be withdrawn from sale while an analysis was conducted. But he stressed that "the link between the symptoms and eating of the sprouts... has not been definitively established."

The French move was criticised yesterday by Stuart Agnew MEP, Ukip's agricultural spokesman, who said it was "irresponsible". "For the French ministry to even float the idea without hard evidence is like blaming a motor manufacturer for a drunk driver. It is obvious to me that they are trying to divert attention and spread the blame," he said.

Radio France Internationale reported that the outbreak was at an early-learning centre in Begles, a suburb of Bordeaux, where the children had grown the sprouts to use as garnish for soup served at a school fete. Six women and two men, aged between 31 and 78, were admitted to hospital. The mayor of Begles, Noël Mamere, told a French newspaper: "The Ministry of Health has told us that fenugreek, mustard and rocket seeds bought from [the garden centre chain] Jardiland and grown at the early-learning centre were the source of the contamination that resulted in the parents being hospitalised."

Meanwhile the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) said yesterday it was "revising its guidance on the consumption of sprouted seeds such as alfalfa, mung beans (usually known as beansprouts) and fenugreek".

"To date, no cases of food poisoning have been reported in the UK linked to the outbreak in France. We are in close contact with the Health Protection Agency which is actively monitoring the situation," a spokesman said. The FSA has asked the French authorities for more information.

Ipswich-based Thompson & Morgan which published its first seed catalogue in 1855 and distributes its products to 163 countries across the world, said: "It is highly unlikely to be the seeds themselves but the way that they were used and handled."

Paul Hansord, the company's managing director, said: "We make sure that everything we do is to a high standard." He said the firm buys its seeds in bulk from suppliers around the world and said the affected seeds may have come from Italy.