Jul 1, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has deleted the name of a German seed importer from a risk assessment report on the recent cluster of Escherichia coli cases in France, out of concern about potential unnecessary harm to the company, CIDRAP News learned today. 

The original report published Jun 29 stated that AGA SAAT GMBH of Dusseldorf, Germany, supplied seeds to a British firm (previously identified as Thompson & Morgan) that sold the seeds used to grow the sprouts linked to the E coli cases in Bordeaux, France. The company was named in a Jun 29 CIDRAP News story based on the report, which was published by the ECDC and the European Food Safety Authority.

But the name of the German firm was removed from the online ECDC report a few hours after it was first published, CIDRAP News has learned. The current version of the report omits the name without giving any explanation for the change.

The report said fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt in 2009 and/or 2010 were implicated in the French illness cluster. The E coli strain in the French illnesses matches the strain in the massive E coli outbreak centered in Germany. The ECDC and EFSA called for urgent investigations into the distribution of the implicated lots of seeds, because of a risk of more cases.

In response to a query today about the reason for removing the company’s name, ECDC spokeswoman Caroline Daamen told CIDRAP News by e-mail, “In the initial risk assessment posted on the website, EFSA and ECDC reported information that had been made available to support the ongoing outbreak investigation. However, 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.

“We hope that this helps to clarify why the name of the company is not included anymore.”

Also today, CIDRAP News received an e-mail message from a German attorney who said that he represented AGA SAAT GMBH and demanded that the firm’s name be removed from our Jun 29 news story based on the ECDC report. The message threatened legal action if the name is not removed.

The message from Dr. Philipp Giesen of the firm Rellermeyer Partner in Dusseldorf states, “In your article on your website [link included] our client is wrongly brought in connection with the supply of possibly EHEC contaminated seed. So far, in the context of intensive inspections neither in the case of supplies to our client nor in the case of supplies of our client EHEC exciters were determined.

“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. Therefore, we request you to delete immediately the name of our client from your above article.

“We look forward to the confirmation of the deletion until the 2nd of July 2011.

“We also reserve our right to take further legal measures against you.”

An examination by CIDRAP staff members of online documents indicated that the original ECDC report was replaced by a revised version about 9 hours after it was published on Jun 29. Most of the currently available media stories about the report do not mention the firm’s name, but at least one Reuters report, in the French newspaper Le Figaro, still mentioned it today.

The ECDC’s action in dropping the name without an explanation was sharply criticized by Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of CIDRAP News.

“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,” he said.

“If it [the naming of AGA SAAT GMBH] is not correct, they should go back and correct that,” he added. “But if they’re letting the company dictate to them, they’re really not doing their job. It really is public health malpractice not to name these companies when they’re involved, particularly when there’s a potential risk to the public as a result of their product still being on the market.”