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“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.”

– Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, Director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of CIDRAP News

A curious thing has happened on June 29th.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), in conjunction with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), released a risk assessment on the E. coli O104:H4 cases reported from the Bordeaux region of France. Fenugreek sprouting seeds – supplied by the British firm Thompson & Morgan –  were implicated in the French outbreak.

The report named AGA SAAT GMBH of Dusseldorf, Germany as the supplier both of the seeds packaged and sold by Thompson & Morgan, and of the seeds implicated in the far larger and very deadly German outbreak of hemolytic uremic syndrome and bloody diarrhea.

The seeds, according to the report, originated from Egypt. The Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture has denied that Egypt had exported fenugreek seeds to Germany.

But this isn’t the curious thing that happened. What’s curious is that – several hours after the report was first issued – ECDC quietly replaced its initial report with an edited version that omitted the name of the German company, according to a news story released this evening by CIDRAP News. CIDRAP has posted a link to both the original ECDC report (see page 3 of the report) and the revised version.

Why did ECDC take this action? Here’s what CIDRAP has to say:

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.”

Both CIDRAP News and attorney/blogger Bill Marler – who also reported the story -have received email messages from AGA SAAT’s attorney, “reserving the right” to take legal measures if they do not delete the company’s name from their respective articles.

I have been critical in the past of the EU policy of not naming manufacturers, distributors, or brand names of foods that are listed in its Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). But this back-door removal of the name of an implicated company from an already published report takes the cake.

In contrast to this sorry German saga, Thompson & Morgan – the British company that supplied the packaged seeds implicated in the French outbreak – has withdrawn from sale five varieties of sprouting seeds and sprouting seed mixes, even though the company contends that “…there has been no established link…” between the seeds they supplied and the outbreak cases.

If ECDC and EFSA were uncertain of the validity of their conclusion, they should not have named the company to begin with.

If the agencies have developed new information that invalidates their initial conclusion and clears AGA SAAT, they should say so.

If ECDC and EFSA simply yielded to pressure and altered their initial report for no valid scientific reason, they should be ashamed of themselves.

The primary role of public health and safety agencies is to protect the health and safety of their citizens – not the political safety of the agencies.

For shame!

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