Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

CDC Mum About Fast-Food Chain in Salmonella Outbreak

Salmonella Enteritidis infections centered in Texas and Oklahoma, but also spread over 8 other states, sickened 68 people who ate at a Mexican-style fast food restaurant chain in October and November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

The CDC did not identify the restaurant chain, nor did it explain why it was reporting this outbreak for the first time now, nearly two months after it occurred. The investigation report was labeled “final update,” although it was also the first announcement of the multistate outbreak.

No specific food or ingredient was determined to be responsible for the illnesses. The CDC said investigators concluded that whatever the food source was, it likely was contaminated before it reached the fast-food restaurant outlets.

Unidentified Restaurants

This isn’t the first time a CDC investigation report did not reveal the name of a restaurant chain associated with customer illnesses. In August, 2010, the federal public-health agency reported 155 people sick in two multistate outbreaks of Salmonella Hartford and Salmonella Baildon infections.

The Mexican-style fast food restaurant chain implicated then was initially referred to only as Restaurant Chain A.  Days later, CDC confirmed that Taco Bell was the chain responsible.

Once again, CDC refers to the company involved in the latest outbreak as Restaurant Chain A.

“I am bewildered why the government keeps this type of information from the public,” said food safety attorney Bill Marler, publisher of Food Safety News. “Secrecy in public health serves no useful purpose – especially in foodborne outbreak investigations.”

“Can anyone at CDC spell ‘transparency?,’ ” asked microbiologist Phyllis Entis, author of the eFoodAlert website.

Entis said┬ánot naming the implicated Mexican-style fast food restaurant chain “does a disservice to all of the ‘Mexican-style fast food” chains that were not involved in the outbreak.” She also observed that the CDC commented favorably on this anonymous chain’s handling and cooking of ground beef:

“I would think that Chain A would want to be named, so that its customers could have the comfort of knowing that its procedures for handling and cooking meat were appropriate and safe.”

Outbreak Profile

The CDC said Texas reported 43 people infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Enteritidis, Oklahoma reported 16 cases, Kansas 2 and Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio and Tennessee each reported 1.

Nearly one-third of those sickened were hospitalized.

Victims ranged in age from under one year to 79 years old, with a median age of 25.

The outbreak began about Oct. 13, 2011 and “appears to be over,” according to the investigation report.

Food histories were obtained for 52 of the ill people, and 60 percent of them reported eating at 18 different locations of Restaurant Chain A in the week before they were sick.

The epidemiologic control study, which compared 48 of the Salmonella-infected people and 103 well people, found that significantly more of the sick people had eaten at Chain A (62 percent compared with 17 percent).

No Known Source

But the investigators were unable to pinpoint the source of these people’s infections.

Ninety percent reported eating lettuce, 94 percent reported eating ground beef, 77 percent reported eating cheese and 35 percent reported eating tomatoes, according to the report. Investigators ruled out the ground beef, saying it was “an unlikely source” because of Chain A’s procedures for handling and cooking meat.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigators, the report says, tried to figure out which food was the culprit by tracking supply truck delivery routes and schedules. But that line of inquiry hit a dead end when “FDA found locations where more than one ill person reported eating in the week before becoming ill were on two separate trucking routes. Comparison of records from suspected foods received by these locations revealed no commonalities across a variety of suppliers.”

The unnamed fast-food restaurant chain, the unnamed food suppliers and the unnamed distributers were all “very cooperative” with the investigation, the report noted.

“At this time, there is no specific advice to consumers,” the CDC said in concluding the report. “Consumers are not warned to avoid specific foods or restaurants.”

CDC Epi Curve:

011912-epi-600.jpg

CDC Outbreak Map:

 

011912-map-600.jpg

© Food Safety News
  • DNADOC

    Hmmmmmm. Interesting that the CDC couldn’t find the source. That’s somewhat reminiscent of the 1984 Rajneeshee food poisoning event in Dalles, Oregon. Albeit on a much smaller scale.
    I hope this wasn’t practice for something bigger…

  • Steve

    Instead of CDC identifying the fast food outlet, Taco Bell, as the culprit -it’s depicted as a “Mexican-style restaurant”. I’m sure that was purposely confusing to consumers in Texas and Oklahoma — where the majority of the poisonings occurred. Seems like federal watchdog turned lapdog policy is not to give too much information to consumers that might cast dispersions on major corporate brand names.
    And DNADOC — there’s the source of the “conspiracy” you’re looking for — it’s called protecting Big Business as Usual when once again things fall through the highly risky, industrialized food system cracks…

  • Danae in MD

    This concealment is outrageous! Food Safety News & Ms Rothschild, would you consider following up by requesting the information under Freedom of Information Act if necessary? I do understand that the CDC plays a secondary role in food safety. The FDA or USDA are really responsible to release the information to the public, since the CDC serves only the role of gathering the data. Would you consider going beyond the CDC and addressing this issue? I do not excuse the secrecy of the CDC, I am suggesting that there are several federal agencies involved and it would be appropriate to address more than just the CDC. I’ve pasted a passage from the CDC website describing their role in food safety:
    CDC’s Role in Food Safety
    CDC leads federal efforts to gather data on foodborne illnesses, investigate foodborne outbreaks and monitor the effectiveness of prevention and control efforts. CDC is not a food safety regulatory agency but works closely with the food safety regulatory agencies, in particular, with FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. CDC also plays a key role in building state and local health department epidemiology, laboratory and environmental health capacity to support foodborne disease surveillance and outbreak response. Notably, CDC data can be used to help document the effectiveness of regulatory interventions.

  • Shannon

    It may sound outrageous that CDC didn’t identify the restaurant chain, but it’s probably less sinster than you believe. Those of us in public health have to make the decision about whether including the name of a restaurant in a report or press release will serve any benefit. We definitely let people know if we’re trying to identify more people who are sick, if the outbreak is continuing, or if it will allow people to take actions to protect themselves or stop the outbreak. Otherwise, there’s no reason to villianize/jeopardize an establishment, whether it’s locally owned or part of a large corporation. All that said, when someone asks, we tell them. We take our responsibilities seriously: protect public health and allow people access to public information.

  • Shannon, I do not doubt for a moment that you and your co-workers take public health seriously. However, the public has a right to know which establishment this is so they can decide if they want to go there to eat or not. Within a few days the information will get out – just like the last time the “Mexican-style Fast Food Restaurant A” was implicated. Why not simply let the public know now?

  • Shannon

    Bill, it’s more about relationships and ethics, rather than the dark “let’s hide things from the public” motivation that is often ascribed to us.
    If we feel that there’s nothing to be gained by naming an establishment, we don’t include it in the information we send out. A reporter’s role is to uncover more information; information that is easily given, but sometimes would not be responsible of us to volunteer.
    At all levels of government, we have to answer to politicians, we have to maintain and foster relationships with the regulated community, and we have to go home at night feeling like we’ve done the right thing. Sometimes that means identifying an establishment as “Restaurant A.”
    It’s time to stop the broadbrush villianization of government. People work at health departments because they care about their community and want to make a positive difference in the world, not because they want to protect multinational corporations.

  • Steve

    Shannon — As an Eater I fully believe that Eaters have a full right to know who is selling tainted food in the marketplace.
    And while government often gets vilified for the toothlessness and lack of transparency in their “oversight” practices — the fact is the food industry has long Occupied our “watchdog” agencies — protecting their interests instead of ours…