Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) can cause severe human illness, which are frequently linked to the consumption of contaminated beef or dairy products. However, recent outbreaks associated with contaminated flour and undercooked dough in the United States and Canada, highlight the potential of plant based food as transmission routes for STEC. In Germany STEC has been isolated from flour, but no cases of illness have been linked to flour.
In this study, we characterized 123 STEC strains isolated from flour and flour products collected between 2015 and 2019 across Germany. In addition to determination of serotype and Shiga toxin subtype, whole genome sequencing (WGS) was used for isolates collected in 2018 to determine phylogenetic relationships, sequence type (ST), and virulence-associated genes (VAGs).
We found a high diversity of serotypes including those frequently associated with human illness and outbreaks, such as O157:H7 (stx2c/d, eae), O145:H28 (stx2a, eae), O146:H28 (stx2b), and O103:H2 (stx1a, eae). Serotypes O187:H28 (ST200, stx2g) and O154:H31 (ST1892, stx1d) were most prevalent, but are rarely linked to human cases. However, WGS analysis revealed that these strains, as well as, O156:H25 (ST300, stx1a) harbour high numbers of VAGs, including eae, nleB and est1a/sta1.
Although STEC-contaminated flour products have yet not been epidemiologically linked to human clinical cases in Germany, this study revealed that flour can serve as a vector for STEC strains with a high pathogenic potential. Further investigation is needed to determine the sources of STEC contamination in flour and flour products particularly in regards to these rare serotypes.