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Feds get a little queasy over new Seattle policy to disclose active investigations

SALT LAKE CITY  — Public Health – Seattle & King County currently report under “active investigations”  a “bacterial toxin” associated with Lahori Kabab-n-Grill in Kent, WA and a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli outbreak associated with I Love Sushi and Sodexo’s Cafe Mario, both located in Redmond, WA.

Those are routine reports for Public Health- Seattle-King County, that is true.   But that kind of information is rarely seen outside the inner sanctum in most of the public health world.  The Seattle reports include  “active investigations,” where a food source is not yet known, but when others involved in a food safety incident, from restaurants to food manufacturers might well be named.

Food safety investigations usually are kept close especially where the federal government is involved.  For multi-state outbreaks, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) usually goes public with an outbreak only when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) have nailed down the food source causing the illnesses. 

For example, CDC investigates more than 100 outbreaks a year, but only a relative handful are cleared for public release.  Federal food safety agencies have long defended making outbreak information available only when it can advance public health.  Once a contaminated food source is identified, there is usually a recall and the public has something both to look for and avoid.

Public Health – Seattle & King County opted to get out the business of metering out public information by posting summaries of all its active investigations on its websites, often before food sources are nailed down and well before the investigation is complete.   When the federal food safety agencies and Seattle-King County are working on the same outbreak, those now differing policies can and have come into conflict. 

“Is there such a thing as too much transparency?”

That question was poised in the title for a panel discussion at the International Association for Food Protection in Salt Lake City on “different perspectives on deciding when to communicate during a good safety outbreak.”

The session was organized by  FSIS’s Aaron Lavallee who readily acknowledged the USDA agency had some differences with Public Health – Seattle & King County when their differing policies first conflicted.

Panelists Sara Coleman with Health Canada and CDC’s Elizabeth Green answered many questions but did not seem drawn to follow the new Seattle procedure.   Most of the questions to the panel were over the somewhat botched recent handling of the public health warnings over romaine lettuce.   There were no FDA panelists, but the questions surrounded the warning over romaine from the Yuma, AZ growing area.

The warnings were over E. coli O157: H7 contamination in an outbreak that included five deaths.

A Seattle-King County spokesman said the agency is satisfied with its greater transparency.    She said the joint city-county agency’s reports have not outrun the facts.    They’ve also found local media is more dependent on Public Health as an information source than when they held information closer.

The differing recall policies between FSIS and FDA also came up in the panel discussion.    FSIS provides consumers with the names and locations of retail outlets that sold or distributed recalled product.    FDA does not offer that level of detail.   The Consumer Federation of America’s Thomas Gremillion, also on the panel, said consumers would like to see FDA adopt the FSIS approach.  He is director of the Federation’s Food Policy Institute.

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