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.