Once again, as Dr. Doug Powell would say, the leafy green cone of silence descends.
As best as I can tell, here are public health’s arguments for disclosure and non-disclosure in the recent cyclospora outbreak, and my thoughts in italics:
A. Although there is no written policy, it is the way we have done things for years.
Why do I hear my mom saying, “Just because so and so does that does not mean you should too.” Like all government policies – change is good.
B. Since the outbreak has concluded, there is not an immediate public health threat.
Frankly, that is true in most foodborne illness outbreaks. In nearly every single outbreak investigated by the CDC the outbreak is figured out far after the peak of the illnesses happened. However, disclosure gives the public information on which companies have a strong or weak food safety record.
C. Disclosing the name of the company jeopardizes cooperation from the company in this and future outbreaks.
If a company will only cooperate if they are placed in a witness protection program and with promises of non-disclosure, it does not say much for our government’s and the company’s commitment to safe food.
D. Bad publicity may cause economic hardship on the restaurant.
True, but not poisoning your customers is a better business practice.
I would also add a couple more reasons that I have received via email (mostly anonymously):
1. The source was an unknown supplier, so naming the restaurant might place unfair blame on the restaurant.
This one does make some sense. However, is this the unnamed restaurants’ first problem with a faulty supplier, or is this a pattern? And, even if it is the first time, perhaps some of the unnamed product is still in the market?
2. Since the outbreak involves a perishable item, by the time the CDC announces the outbreak, the tainted product has long been consumed.
This one I have heard a “bunch” of times – especially in leafy green outbreaks. However, why should the public be left in the dark about the type of product that sickens as well as the likely grower and shipper so they can make future decision who to buy from?
3. Going public with the name of the restaurant compromises the epidemiologic investigation by suggesting the source of the outbreak before the investigation is complete.
I completely agree with this one. This is a tough call, and one that must create the most angst for public health officials – they decide the balance between having enough data to go forward to protect the public health or wait for more data. The point is do not go forward until the investigation is complete.
4. Public health is concerned about making an investigation mistake like, “It’s the tomatoes, err, I mean peppers.”
See my answer to 3 above. This is why under the law, public health officials are immune from liability for the decisions that they make in good faith to protect the public.
5. Public health – especially surveillance – is under budgetary pressures and there are simply not the resources to complete investigations.
There is no question that this is true. I have seen it in dropped investigations over the last few years. Labs are not doing genetic fingerprinting to help reveal links between ill people. And many tracebacks are stopped by the lack of people power to do the research necessary to find the “root cause” of an outbreak.
For me it is easy – the public has a right to know and to use the information as it sees fit, and people – especially government employees – have no right to decide what we should and should not know. CDC, FDA and the state departments of health should just do their jobs.© Food Safety News