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Naming Names in EU E. coli Outbreak: Fair Game?

Seed company threatens to sue American news sites for naming it as suspect in European E. coli outbreak.

The investigation into the European E. coli crisis linked to sprouts has been closing in on Egyptian fenugreek seeds. But the name of a possible importer of those seeds mysteriously disappeared from an official report on the outbreak Wednesday — 9 hours after it was published.

The original document, released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), named agaSAAT GmbH of Dusseldorf, Germany as the company that apparently supplied a 2009 lot of seeds to a British firm, that in turn sold them in France where they are linked to a cluster of E. coli O104:H4 infections. The report also said a 2010 lot of the company’s seeds was suspect in the larger outbreak in Germany.

“The tracing back is progressing and has thus far shown that fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt either in 2009 and/or 2010 by the company agaSAAT GmbH are implicated in both outbreaks,” it read.

Later that day, however, the name of the company had been removed from that sentences and two others.

CIDRAP, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy news service, which was the first to report the news Wednesday, asked yesterday why the information had been removed. ECDC responded, “Some key partners involved felt that it may unnecessarily harm the company to publish its name while the investigations are still ongoing. So it was thought more appropriate to remove the name of the company from the final report.”

Blame for the devastating European E. coli outbreak has been soaring around like a heat-seeking missile — financially crippling the producers it incriminates. In Spain, vegetable producers lost approximately 200 million euros per week in sales after contaminated Spanish cucumbers were identified incorrectly as the outbreak vehicle, and health officials continued to warn consumers to avoid lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Since that time, German health officials have come under fire for what some say was premature speculation about the potential risk of produce — but which the authorities defend as a necessary public caution.

So as the investigation now zeros in on the German seed company, the firm is scrambling,  perhaps in vain, to expunge its name from the record.

On Friday, CIDRAP received a letter from a lawyer for the company requesting that the newspaper remove its title from its article.

“In your article on your website … our client is wrongly brought in connection with the supply of possibly EHEC contaminated seed,” the letter read.

It pointed out that health officials had not yet proven a definitive link between agaSAAT GmbH and the outbreak.

“Nevertheless, already — by itself — the nomination of the name of our client in connection with possibly EHEC contaminated seed is suitable for damaging her reputation,” said the letter.

Food Safety News also named the German company in a June 29 article, but has not received a request to delete it.

The firm’s name remains missing from the latest version of the ECDC report.

“I really think they compromised public health practice by removing the name of the company and not saying why, particularly since more fenugreek seeds may still be out in the public domain,” said Dr.  Michael Osterholm, director of the Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and publisher of CIDRAP news, in a statement.

Interestingly, the seed company issued its own press release June 21, 8 days before the ECDC report came out, assuring buyers that its seeds were safe and outlining its sanitation procedures.

“Our sprouting seeds are purchased exclusively from audited farms and run through other extensive controls by us,” said managing director Werner Arts in the release.

Authorities are still working to determine whether seeds from agaSAAT carried the E. coli strain implicated in the outbreak.

Finding E. coli bacteria on a product after it has been distributed can often be difficult, Oregon Epidemiologist Bill Keene explained to Food Safety News in an interview in June.

“What happens if you just take a little bit [to sample] out of this seed bag and a little out of that seed bag…but you don’t get the right bag, or you don’t get the right corner of the right bag?”

After sampling, he says, it takes time to grow seeds so that bacteria can multiply enough to show up on tests. Even then, he says, a negative test doesn’t prove the seeds innocent, because E. coli can appear at low, undetectable levels.

“The likelihood that they’ll find it if it’s there is not even close to 100 percent,” says Keene.

Investigators have not yet announced whether the German company’s fenugreek seeds have been sampled or cultivated.

Meanwhile, U.S. seed producers are assuring the public that produce grown from American seeds is safe to consume.

While sprouts have been implicated in several recent Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks here, prompting FDA to warn against consuming raw sprouts, the seed industry wants consumers to feel safe eating other fruits and vegetables over the Fourth of July weekend.

“We know from a number of research studies that even when seed is intentionally contaminated with E. coli and planted in the ground, the bacteria is not transmitted to the produce harvested,” said Trevor Suslow, University of California-Davis Extension food safety specialist in a statement.

Seeds produced for sprouts, however, are essentially placed in incubators that are an ideal breeding ground for any bacteria or microbial pathogens that may exist.

FDA says it is continuing to monitor seeds imported into the U.S. for contamination.

“Our increased surveillance currently includes all sprouts, seeds for sprouting and fenugreek from Egypt and from countries in the European Union,” said the agency in an emailed statement to Food Safety News.

FDA also told Food Safety News that no seeds have been imported from agaSAAT GmbH for sprouting or spices.

In Europe, health authorities have warned consumers against eating raw sprouts, and France has banned the sale of mustard, fenugreek and arugula sprouts.

© Food Safety News
  • sohair

    the unfair and uncertain news related to egyptian fenugreek will cause damage to the egyptian economic and egypt should complain to WTO , the news is completly away from the true
    this fenugreek exported as dry seed and it is not subjected to bacteria media grow
    many lots exported and no cases recorded
    as the seed exhabited processing such as fermintation- packinig it is not the responsibilty of egypt
    so if the seed after ferimintation is the reason so such infection not related to egyptian seed because it could be happened ( i.e contamination) to any food or seed caming from any country or even from local production
    it is urgently requestes to clarify the real situation to the world, to overcome the News hasty and consideration is based on uncertain bases
    we hope to find another press conference to illustrates the fact to every one

  • http://www.psandman.com Jody Lanard M.D.

    It’s good to see CIDRAP, Doug Powell, Food Safety News and others following up on EFSA/ECDC’s deletion of the potential corporate source of potentially e.coli-contaminated seeds.
    In this case, and in most food outbreak cases, I think that preliminary suspect sources should be quickly named — so that individuals can take precautionary protective action, and so that distributers and end-sellers can more easily recall the products, under public pressure to do so. But it isn’t always a no-brainer — it is part of a dilemma.
    Watching even the best epidemiological investigation (and this is not one of the best) is like visiting a sausage factory. Or better yet, it’s like watching the very early stage of a serial crime investigation when there are many suspects and the crimes are still occurring — the goal is to eventually (but as quickly as possible) catch the right criminal AND help people protect themselves from harm while the criminal is still at large.
    In public health food outbreak investigations, the collateral economic damage to “initial suspects” can be enormous. But at every point when evidence points in a certain direction, and using that evidence prudently might help people protect themselves, public health officials want to report the evidence, so people can take potentially protective action.
    This is a dilemma, but the horns of the dilemma are not equal: the public health officials are DARNED if they do (report a suspected source of a food outbreak that later turns out innocent) and DAMNED if they don’t (report a suspected source of a food outbreak that later turns out guilty).
    (The last three paragraphs of this note are from my post on this topic yesterday at noon, at: http://tinyurl.com/agasaat-uncertainty )

  • http://www.ScoringAg.com William Kanitz

    Audited farms and certification is a 1 or 2 day snapshot that everything looks good and clean. Who checks the other 363 days? Who were the handlers during processing and packing? Were they tested before going to retail? The Cost of testing is less than a recall and loss of sales.
    So I agree with the Statement;
    In public health food outbreak investigations, the collateral economic damage to “initial suspects” can be enormous. But at every point when evidence points in a certain direction, and using that evidence prudently might help people protect themselves, public health officials want to report the evidence, so people can take potentially protective action.
    Better traceback is needed from the seed producer if the seed is used for sprout production. The Sprout industry needs to define seed headed to sprout production.