Last week I had the honor to speak at the Michigan State University (MSU) Food Safety Program (for those who follow me on Instagram, I took a ferry, car, train and plane to get there). The speech was included in two days of sessions facilitated by Frank Yiannas, Vice President of Food Safety & Health, Walmart, USA and Adjunct Professor in the Online Master of Science in Food Safety Program at MSU, and a new hero of mine. Transparency in food safety, by both government and industry, became a topic of conversation. The week before last Pacific Coast Fruit Company posted a recall notice on its website, that once noticed by the public, it later removed. The noticed announced that the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) were investigating an outbreak of foodborne illnesses associated with eating Taylor Farms Organic Kale Medley “power greens” mix in Minnesota. The mix contained spinach, kale, chard, and shredded carrots. Six people with Salmonella Enteritidis infections with the same rare DNA fingerprint pattern were reported to MDH in April. The people ranged in age from 7 to 69 and are from Dakota, Hennepin, Itasca, Olmsted and St. Louis counties. Their illnesses began between April 3 and April 26. One person was hospitalized, and all are recovering. Five of the ill people in Minnesota reported eating Taylor Farms Organic Kale Medley purchased at several Sam’s Club locations, and the source of the sixth person’s illness is under investigation. Kudos to MDH and MDA for quickly and accurately finding the source of a food borne outbreak. All look to both these organizations as leaders in food safety in the United States. MDH alerted Sam’s Club (part of Walmart, USA) and possibly Taylor Farms. Sam’s Club alerted Taylor Farms which alerted Pacific Coast Fruit Company. Sam’s Club pulled Taylor Farms Organic Kale Medley from store shelves nationwide on April 4 and notified its customers who purchased the product in Minnesota since March 1. Apparently, no one in government asked for a recall or a market withdraw, however, Sam’s Club reached out to those customers that it knew had purchased the product – Well done Frank. Although people who purchased the product were informed, the broader public was not informed. Sound recently familiar? According to the Seattle Times, and a lawsuit I filed, a Seattle area man feel ill starting July 25 after eating pork carnitas, white rice, salsa, peppers, guacamole and chips at a Chipotle restaurant at 1415 Broadway in Seattle. He was hospitalized from July 30 through Aug. 2 with an E. coli O157: H7 infection later tied to the restaurant. Officials with Seattle & King County Public Health confirmed the July E. coli outbreak, which sickened four other people and hospitalized two, including my client. But health officials didn’t publicize the outbreak at the time. “By the time we were able to make a connection to Chipotle, the outbreak was over,” James Apa, a health- department spokesman, said in an email. In a statement, Apa said a thorough investigation of the restaurant found nothing to explain the outbreak — or anything to indicate ongoing risk. “There’s no evidence to support the claim that announcing this outbreak after it was over would have made a difference in the subsequent Chipotle E. coli outbreaks, which were different strains, widely publicized and remain unsolved,” he added. Chipotle restaurants faced a series of outbreaks of multiple types of illness across the U.S. in 2015 after the July E. coli outbreak, including Salmonella infections that sickened 64 people in Minnesota and norovirus infections that sickened about 300 customers in Ventura, California, in August and about 140 people, mostly college students, in Boston in December. In addition, the CDC investigated another outbreak of E. coli O26 that sickened five people in three states who ate at Chipotle restaurants and 55 in several other states. It does raise questions: How many outbreaks are never announced by public health officials? And, does the public have a right to know? Over the years, I have compiled the arguments for disclosure and non-disclosure and my thoughts in italics:
- Although there is no written policy, it is the way we have done things for years;
Why do I hear my mom saying, “just because so and so does that does not mean you should too.” Like all government policies – change is good.
- Since the outbreak has concluded, there is not an immediate public health threat;
Frankly, that is true in most foodborne illness outbreaks. In nearly every single outbreak investigated the outbreak is figured out far after the peak of the illnesses happened. However, disclosure gives the public information on which companies have a strong or weak food safety record.
- Disclosing the name of the company jeopardizes cooperation from the company in this and future outbreaks; and
If a company will only cooperate if they are placed in a witness protection program and with promises of non-disclosure, it does not say much for our government’s and the company’s commitment to safe food.
- Bad publicity may cause economic hardship on the restaurant or manufacturer.
True, but not poisoning your customers is a better business practice. I would also add a couple more reasons that I have received via email (mostly anonymously):
- The source was an unknown supplier, so naming the restaurant or manufacturer might place unfair blame on the restaurant or manufacturer;
This one does make some sense. However, is this the unnamed restaurants first problem with a faulty supplier, or is this a pattern? And, even if it is the first time, perhaps some of the unnamed product is still in the market?
- Since the outbreak involves a perishable item, by the time outbreak is announced, the tainted product has long been consumed;
This one I have heard a “bunch” of times – especially in leafy green outbreaks. However, why should the public be left in the dark about the type of product that sickens as well as the likely grower and shipper so they can make future decision who to buy from?
- Going public with the name of the restaurant or manufacturer compromises the epidemiologic investigation by suggesting the source of the outbreak before the investigation is complete;
I completely agree with this one. This is a tough call, and one that must create the most angst for public health officials – they decide the balance between having enough data to go forward to protect the public health or wait for more data. The point is do not go forward until the investigation is complete.
- Public health is concerned of making an investigation mistake like, it’s the tomatoes, err, I mean peppers;
See my answer to 3 above. This is why under the law; public health officials are immune for liability for the decisions that they make in good faith to protect the public.
- Public health – especially surveillance – is under budgetary pressures and there is simply not the resources to complete investigations; and
There is no question that this is true. I have seen it in dropped investigations over the last few years. Labs are not doing genetic fingerprinting to help reveal links between ill people. And, many tracebacks are stopped by the lack of peoplepower to do the research necessary to find the “root cause” of an outbreak. However, for me it is easy – the public has a right to know and to use the information as it sees fit, and people – especially government employees – have no right to decide what we should and should not know.