As Food Safety News continues to investigate the identity of ‘Restaurant Chain A,’ the “Mexican-style fast food chain” linked to a 10-state outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis infection in October and November 2011, the issue has received mounting attention from a variety of media outlets and blogs, including the Huffington Post and Marion Nestle at Food Politics.
JoNel Aleccia of msnbc.com spoke with Dr. Robert Tauxe, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Deputy Director of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Disease. In the interview, Tauxe explained the government’s rationale behind withholding the name of the restaurant, a practice he said the CDC and Food and Drug Administration regularly follow in similar outbreaks.
The agencies’ longstanding policy has been to identify companies linked to outbreaks only when the information will directly protect public health, such as in the case of an ongoing outbreak. The CDC also wants to avoid jeopardizing cooperation with companies that voluntarily release information during outbreak investigations.
In this case, according to the CDC, health officials chose not to identify the restaurant because the outbreak ended before investigators had enough information to release a report. In other words, no more people were at risk of catching the bug by the time the agencies pinpointed it.
Food safety attorney Bill Marler, who publishes Food Safety News, dismissed that reasoning, noting that nearly all CDC investigations discover the source of an outbreak after the peak illnesses have passed. Identifying outbreak-associated restaurants reveals their food safety track record over time, he added.
To some food safety and public health experts, the ramifications of withholding the restaurant’s identity extend beyond potentially harming a company’s reputation.
Dave Theno, the former vice-president of technical services for Jack in the Box, said that identifying the restaurant in an outbreak lets related businesses respond accordingly, perhaps in ways government agencies would not predict. The Salmonella infections have been traced to a product — likely fresh produce — served at Restaurant A, but contaminated before it arrived.
“Let’s say I own a restaurant and I happen to know my lettuce supplier also supplies Restaurant A. In the real world, as soon as the lettuce supplier hears from Restaurant A, he’s going to call all his customers to tell them what’s happening,” Theno said. “But people don’t always see every outbreak and don’t always get notified. There are a lot of gaps in the system, to be quite honest.”
Theno said that if other restaurant owners shared a mutual supplier with Restaurant A, they might not know they ever carried a contaminated product unless the government identified the outbreak’s source.
Theno also wondered whether Mexican-style fast food restaurants not involved in the outbreak might suffer economic harm. By revealing only the type of chain, public health agencies might cause consumers to avoid all types of Mexican-style chains out of caution.
Craig Hedberg, Ph.D., professor of environmental health at the University of Minnesota, said that in the initial stages of an epidemiological investigation, revealing the name of an outbreak source can create unnecessary complications for the researchers. Not only do investigators want to be absolutely certain they pinpoint the right source, they need time to interview and vet victims before the public and the media scrutinize and otherwise influence the investigation.
Once the investigation has confirmed its source and an outbreak report is ready, however, the benefits of nondisclosure become less relevant, Hedberg said.
More importantly, he added, by not revealing itself, Restaurant A is missing an opportunity to publicly acknowledge and correct its mistake.
“We certainly all understand that foodborne illnesses occur and nobody wants to see that happen,” Hedberg said. “But in the years I investigated outbreaks with the Minnesota Department of Health, our experience was that when a food producer or restaurant could stand up say, ‘Yes, the outbreak happened, and this is what we’re doing to prevent it again,’ the public responds positively to that.”
“Rather than run from the outbreak, the company needs to stand up and say, ‘We can’t always prevent everything, but this gives us a chance to review our practices and redouble our efforts to make sure this doesn’t happen again,'” he added. “That almost always goes well with the public. You have to give credit to the public for understanding.”
Hedberg referenced the 1994 outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis infection linked to Schwan’s ice cream, made from ice cream mix contaminated in a supplier’s tanker trucks. Despite not being directly culpable, Schwan’s took responsibility and pledged to reform its food safety standards.
“Schwan’s changed their processes in response to that outbreak and have become an important leader in the food safety arena since that time,” Hedberg said. “They weren’t responsible, but rather than hiding from the public, they used that opportunity to really remake their whole food safety system.”
Similarly, Theno instrumentally reformed Jack in the Box’s food safety practices following the 1993 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 linked to undercooked ground beef at their restaurants. He said the Restaurant A outbreak might provide an opportunity to reevaluate the precedent of nondisclosure for similar outbreaks moving forward.
“I’ve worked with Robert Tauxe and the FDA for years. I understand exactly where they are, but I don’t happen to agree with it all,” Theno said. “Perhaps it’s time to look at this whole issue again, not in the crux of an outbreak, but with calm minds and with all the interested parties at the table and ask, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ I don’t have an answer to that, but I think it would serve everyone well.”