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Letter From The Editor: Public Trust

John Perkins, the long-time police chief of Pocatello, ID, taught me all I needed about the public’s right to know.


When hired on after college at the Idaho State Journal, I inherited the police beat. It was usually the first beat assignment daily newspapers gave to rookie reporters who did not know anything. I knew a lot less than that.

For many months, I wrote for the ISJ, but I worked at the Pocatello Police Department.  When I learned I had access to incident reports, arrest reports, jail logs and the like without any restriction, I remember asking Chief Perkins why this daily gold mine of information was freely made available to me. He replied, ” ‘Cause we are the good guys and if you do your job, the public will trust we are doing ours.”

Chief Perkins knew more about public trust than all of Washington D.C. and Atlanta GA agency heads with their “transparency” budgets running into the millions. These days we know Americans don’t much trust government, especially the one in Washington D.C.

Why top federal officials do not try harder to earn that trust is the only mystery.

Sadly, in the past six months, we’ve had performances from two such officials involved in food safety that did not restore trust, but only further opened that gap between the people and their government.

I am speaking of Margaret Hamburg, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, and Robert Tauxe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) deputy director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases.

After cantaloupe contamination led to last year’s deadly Listeria outbreak, Hamburg defended FDA’s lame “ask your retailers” policy for consumers who wanted to find out where those Jensen Farms melons were being sold. 

As food safety author and microbiologist Phyllis Entis observed, “Consumers should not have to play detective in order to find out whether or not they have been exposed to the risk of infection from a recalled food.” That would appear to be especially true for an outbreak where the product being sold at the retail level far outran the distribution area.

Then we had this pitiful set of excuses from Tauxe for the reason CDC withheld Taco Bell’s name from its report on a 10-state, 70 sickened Salmonella outbreak, where the food source responsible for the illnesses also could not be determined. 

Lots of other people have commented on this, and I don’t mean to pile on.  By contacting the state public health departments, and finding one more interested in following its own state law than in currying favor with Atlanta, we were able to report that the CDC’s “Restaurant Chain A” was Taco Bell.


Tauxe’s rationale that he is the J. Edgar Hoover of public health, able to keep secrets and reel out information to the public when he sees fit, is very dangerous and must be challenged. 

For goodness sake, many in the public think – presumably incorrectly – that Dr. Tauxe is covering for Taco Bell.

Since we outed Taco Bell as “‘Restaurant Chain A” and Taco Bell confirmed it, we are wondering how long it will be before CDC updates its Jan. 19 final report on the SE outbreak to include, for the sake of history and researchers, the real name?

Or better yet, when might we expect CDC to update its Dec. 8 final report on the cantaloupe Listeria outbreak to include two more of those confirmed infected in the death toll?  As the keeper of the final record, CDC should honor the dead by including them and accurately marking both their passing and the lethality of the epidemic.

We are not going to hold our breath.

But acknowledging public information publicly would be good for CDC. Issuing retail distribution lists for recalled products to assist the public during outbreaks would be good for FDA.

Lately, however, neither public agency is doing much to restore the public trust the late Chief Perkins knew should never be lost in the first place.

Is there any question why the people are questioning their government?

© Food Safety News
  • Chuck

    Dan, it ought to be mandatory that companies involved in outbreaks should be ‘outed’ as soon as the link is established. Better yet, those companies ought to have the good sense to ‘out’ themselves as soon as they know.