Attorneys and judges who make our criminal system work have been talking for some time about “CSI Syndrome.”  

That is the level of expectation for evidence that has developed in the U.S. since the year 2000 when Crime Scene Investigators, or CSI Las Vegas, joined the CBS lineup.

It broke a long line of police shows by focusing not on detectives, but on the crime scene analysts who work behind the scenes to solve cases.

Its success spawned two other franchises in the series, CSI Miami and CSI New York. With the original CSI Las Vegas in its 12th season, an estimated 70 million worldwide are CSI addicts.

Those who work the criminal courts say juries increasingly expect to see some CSI tricks or they must acquit.  On CSI, they will find the DNA match in the belly of the whale just before the last commercial.

It leaves juries bored with the sort of circumstantial and less dramatic direct evidence that has long been used in criminal trials.

CSI Syndrome is also being played out in foodborne illness investigations.  

For most of the last 180 years or so – -ever since Dr. John Snow pinned responsibility for the SoHo outbreak on contaminated water from London’s Broad Street pump — the science of epidemiology has been used to control outbreaks caused by bad food and/or water.

And now microbiologists can run a pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) test to do bacterial typing.  When there is a PFGE match between an infected person and a contaminated food, there is no more doubt or debate.

But does that mean that when bacteria cannot or is not retrieved from left over food, and no PFGE genetic fingerprinting is possible, that the suspected source is off the hook?

Only on CSI.

Yet two daily newspapers this week left readers thinking otherwise.

In two separate cases, one involving sprouts in Idaho and the other involving raw milk in South Carolina, post outbreak sampling  by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failed to turn up any of the suspected bacteria in left over product.

Both Idaho’s Evergreen Produce, thought to be the source of a Salmonella outbreak that infected 13, and South Carolina’s Tucker Adkins Dairy, the likely source of raw milk contaminated with Campylobacter that sickened eight, made the most out of negative tests.

Their local newspapers, especially the Herald of Rock Hill, SC, played up the tests results more like an acquittal in a criminal trial rather than a small piece of an ongoing foodborne illness investigation.  Many of the local reader comments were congratulating Tucker Adkins for having been “cleared.”

While there is nothing better than being found innocent in your local newspaper, the failure of the Spokesman Review and Rock Hill Herald to go into enough detail on how foodborne  illness investigations work is another CSI moment.

While the Idaho sprout producer may have suffered the most severe economic consequences, the raw milk dairy in South Carolina may have what we in the news business call “legs.”

Ever since FDA said the SC dairy was likely responsible for a Campylobacter outbreak in North Carolina, there’s been a larger than normal interest in it. Raw milk advocates even cried foul because FDA put out a news release on it over a weekend. (They must not realize that late night and weekend news releases on outbreaks and recalls are pretty much the norm, not the exception).

Tommy and Carolyn Adkins have now enlisted help from Pete Kennedy, executive director of Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. FDA is confronted with what it will do about one of its prime directives — stopping raw milk from entering interstate commerce.

So when FDA asked her for a list of her customers, Carolyn Adkins said she knew them only by “their first name, by their prayer needs, by their family needs,” but not by their last names or addresses.  It was as good as telling FDA to  “go pound sand.”

Some bacteria and pretty PFGE picture would have ended this one inside a CSI hour, but that is not going to happen now.