Last week I was perplexed when Director Catherine Templeton of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) announced that a “Spartanburg-area Mexican restaurant” was to blame for a recent E. coli O157:H7 outbreak where at least 10 have been sickened – two with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), but stated, “it is our policy not to release information during a pending investigation unless it affects the health of citizens of South Carolina.”

In part I agree with the DHEC policy.  If an investigation is in its infancy, and the agency does not know the source of the outbreak, by all means do not announce a suspect source.  Of course, by the time Director Templeton named a “Spartanburg-area Mexican restaurant” as the link to the outbreak that began in late April and ended in the first week of May, the outbreak was over.

A quick Google search revealed nearly a dozen Mexican-style restaurants in Spartanburg.  You have to wonder how angry all but one of those restaurants were?  So, you must give credit where credit is due to the owner of the El Mexicana for coming out from the kitchen to say:

“In the interest of all Mexican restaurant in Spartanburg, we felt like it was important to come forward and share what DHEC has determined so far in its investigation and our willingness to assist the agency any way that we can.”

However, I did not see a mention of concern for customers who had fallen ill with E. coli infections–perhaps I missed it.

Director Templeton also maintained that it was unnecessary to publically name the restaurant because it no longer posed a health threat.  Why should consumers not be told which restaurants have poisoned customers–whether by bad habits or bad supplier decisions–so they can make choices where to take their families to dinner?  I think we have an absolute right to know.  What right does Director Templeton have to withhold that information?

hidden-ball406x250.jpgHiding the ball from the public as to the source of an outbreak when the outbreak and the investigation is in fact over – especially in the day of instant information via Facebook and Twitter–is not only a waste of time in the long run, but it is a disservice to the taxpaying consumers that Director Templeton is supposed to serve.  Not only is it unfair to the other “Spartanburg-area Mexican restaurants” that are not at fault, but history has shown that hiding public health information from the public can be incredibly detrimental to food safety.  Here are a few examples:

2011 Taco Bell Salmonella Outbreak:  In January of 2012 the CDC announced that a Salmonella outbreak had sickened 68 people in 10 states.  While the CDC tracked the source of the outbreak, publicly it has only named “a Mexican-style fast food chain restaurant – Restaurant Chain A”.  Reporters at Food Safety News ultimately learned from the Oklahoma State Department of Health that the chain in question was Taco Bell.

2011 Schnuck’s Romaine Lettuce E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak: In October of 2011, health officials in Missouri announced that they were investigating an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. By October 31, county health officials named romaine lettuce from Schnuck’s salad bars as the likely source of the outbreak. On December 7, the CDC released a report linking the outbreak to “a single grocery store chain (Chain A).” In a December 8 news report, Schnuck’s confirmed that it was “Chain A,” though it refused to name its lettuce supplier.  In December of 2011, I filed two separate lawsuits against Schnuck’s on behalf of people who were hospitalized due to E. coli O157:H7 infections contracted in the outbreak.  Eventually I added Oklahoma-based Vaughan Foods to both lawsuits when I learned the company was the supplier of E. coli O157:H7-contaminated Romaine lettuce to Schnuck’s stores.

2009 Caudill Sprouting and Jimmy John’s Salmonella Outbreak:  Between February and March of 2009, 235 people in 14 states became ill with Salmonella.  The CDC conducted an investigation that uncovered alfalfa sprouts from a single unnamed grower to be the source of the outbreak. Many of those sickened ate at a restaurant dubbed “Chain A” by the CDC. While the CDC never did release the names of any of the companies involved, on March 15, 2009 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert indicating the contaminated seeds came from Caudill Sprouting.  Later it was discovered that “Chain A” was Jimmy John’s. Jimmy John’s would go on to be involved in a total of 5 foodborne illness outbreaks tied to sprouts before finally pulling sprouts from it menus.

1993 Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak – It has become common knowledge that a 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened over 600, hospitalized 144, and killed four was linked to undercooked hamburgers from Jack in the Box. Nonetheless, to this day the CDC only refers to it as “chain A restaurant”.

1982 McDonald’s E. coli Outbreak – While the Jack in the Box outbreak is commonly credited with introducing E. coli O157:H7 to the masses, a decade earlier at least 47 people became ill with severe symptoms of E. coli O157:H7 in Oregon and Michigan.  Almost all of those sickened had eaten undercooked hamburgers from McDonald’s – referred to only as “a fast food restaurant chain” in medical journals.

Perhaps if researchers had made the 1982 McDonald’s outbreak more public, the Jack in the Box tragedy never would’ve happened.  Perhaps if Jimmy John’s had been publicly identified as playing a role in the 2009 outbreak the company would have taken corrective food safety measures and stopped selling sprouts sooner.  And, in each of these cases, perhaps innocent people would not have been needlessly sickened, hospitalized or died.  Director Catherine Templeton and other health officials at local, state and federal agencies should learn from history and not blindly repeat it.