France bans UK garden firm's seeds in E.coli scare

By Sophie Louet

PARIS (Reuters) - At least two people suffering from E.coli in the French city of Bordeaux have the strain that caused scores of deaths in Germany, French authorities said, and they halted sales of vegetable seeds from a British gardening firm.

The firm, Thompson & Morgan, based in the eastern British town of Ipswich, said Saturday it did not believe its seeds were the cause of the outbreak. A British member of the European parliament said the French authorities should be careful not to damage businesses by hastily assigning blame.

French authorities say six of the people hospitalised in Bordeaux ate sprouted salad vegetables grown from seeds by parents for a June 8 fair at a leisure center in the Bordeaux suburb of Begles.

The suburb's mayor, Noel Mamere, told Reuters the seeds had been bought from a local shop, whose entire stock had since been seized. The French commerce ministry said the seeds at the shop were supplied by Thompson & Morgan.

While awaiting the results of analyses, the government had instructed the consumer authority "to ask sellers of fenugreek, mustard and rocket seeds coming from supplier Thompson & Morgan to suspend the sale of these products without delay," it said.

"The link between the symptoms and consumption of these seeds has so far not been definitively established," the ministry added in a statement issued Friday.

The company said it had sold hundreds of thousands of packets of sprouting seeds to home gardeners in Britain and Europe without any problems.

"We note that the French outbreak seems to be localised to a specific event, which would indicate to us that something local in the Bordeaux area, or the way the product has been handled and grown, is responsible for the incident rather than our seeds," it said in a statement.

Ten E.coli cases have been detected in Bordeaux and seven people were still hospitalised Friday, said Doctor Joao Simoes, who heads the regional health agency.

Regional health official Patrick Rolland told journalists initial tests on two of the patients showed that both had the same E.coli strain as that which caused nearly 40 deaths mostly in Germany this year.

Health authorities in Germany have linked the epidemic there to contaminated bean sprouts and shoots from a German organic farm sold to consumers and restaurants for eating in salads.

German authorities came under fire in their investigation for hastily blaming the epidemic on Spanish cucumbers, comments they later withdrew but only after a drop in sales.

Richard Howitt, member of the European parliament for the east of England which includes Ipswich where the British firm is based, warned against making the same mistake.

"We must be very clear and learn the lessons of the bungling and the mishandling by the Germans in their own investigations," he told Sky News television.

"We must also be very clear that panic amongst consumers is not justified, a collapse in sales is very damaging economically...and is not justified by one report from the French, as yet totally unproven."

French health authorities have said there did not appear to be any link between the cases in Bordeaux and an outbreak last week of E.coli infections near Lille, in northern France, that made eight children ill.

(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas in Paris and Avril Ormsby in London; Editing by Peter Graff)

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