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Food Safety News

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Letter From The Editor: A Modest Suggestion


Last month when  they were going through their petulant period with too many outbreaks on their hands, the boys at Chipotle Mexican Grill were even complaining about the reporting practices by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

They did not like the trailing nature inherent of reporting on illnesses from a multi-state outbreak. Later reports often include illnesses with onset dates similar to those reported earlier. Chipotle was all concerned about the public getting the most accurate and complete information about outbreaks.

outbreakinvestigors_406x250No wait. That is CDC’s task and they do a damn fine job with it. If Chipotle cared about the public getting the latest information it could have mentioned its Simi Valley norovirus outbreak was more than twice as large as originally reported.   Surely, the boys in Denver knew that.

In a multi-state outbreak, CDC has the job of coordinating with the nation’s 2,700 state, district, and local health agencies and overseeing the lab testing they and others do. CDC’s reporting is consistent and efficient.

Food Safety News has had only one problem with CDC over the years and that’s when the agency choses to keep a restaurant’s name out of a report because they’ve determined a health risk no longer exists. We’d like CDC to adopt the approach most police departments take on accident reports—making all the information is public even if the names of drivers who were not at fault.

But Chipotle’s recent mishaps in food safety have raised another issue about reporting that we think needs to be addressed. With as many as a half dozen outbreaks on the table, only the E. coli O26 illnesses were experienced in multiple states and therefore falling under the CDC’s investigation and reporting.

The July E. coli outbreak in Washington State, the Salmonella Newport outbreak in Minnesota and the two norovirus outbreaks in Simi Valley and Boston were all single state events. But all involve the same national restaurant chain. Outbreaks contained in one state are the responsibility of that state.

States like those involved in the recent Chipotle investigations all do a fine job.  But the states do not adhere to a uniform reporting system and there’s no one place to go for state reports.

We’d like to suggest that it’s time for the states to come up with a uniform reporting system for single state outbreaks that would adhere to some of the basics CDC uses. Most useful would be to continue to report new cases until the state agency in charge is able to declare the outbreak over just as CDC does now with the multi-state events.

Since public information is fundamental to the public health mission, there should be someplace where this issue gets taken up seriously. Perhaps the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers (ASTHO), for example, could set up a task force to study it and see that we are not smoking anything here.

We’ll go anywhere for a meaningful discussion of why improved information delivery is in everybody’s interest. If the state’s could pull together more complete and more timely outbreak information the public would be better served.

© Food Safety News