Although a county epidemiologist reported extensive details this week on a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella linked to tuna, federal agencies won’t release information on the investigation, which began more than a month ago.

Before the epidemiologist’s presentation to the Clark County, WA, health board on Wednesday, no agencies at the local, state or federal levels had gone public with any information on the outbreak, which is ongoing and has sickened at least 31 people in seven states from Hawaii to New Jersey.

Representatives from both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Friday for Food Safety News that the federal agencies are involved in the outbreak investigation. Both said their respective agencies had not informed the public about the ongoing outbreak because they haven’t found anything worth revealing.

“CDC is working with several states and FDA to investigate 31 infections of Salmonella Paratyphi B variant L (+) tartrate (+) infections reported from seven states,” the CDC spokeswoman said. “The investigation is ongoing and has not yet indicated a specific source of this outbreak.

“CDC communicates about an outbreak when we have actionable information we can give people to protect themselves. At this time, CDC does not have enough evidence to warrant issuing advice to the public for this outbreak.”

Public health investigators in Washington and Oregon knew on Sept. 8 that 11 of 14 outbreak victims interviewed in their states had eaten sushi before becoming ill.

Between the lines
The FDA didn’t provide any new information Friday, except the fact that it has an open investigation into the outbreak. However, the FDA’s statement in effect named the supplier of the implicated tuna, Relish Foods Inc., of Culver City, CA.

“(T)his is an ongoing investigation, and we, together with our federal, state and local partners, have not yet identified a source,” according to the FDA statement. “During our traceback investigation and sampling, we did collect product samples that were positive for Salmonella, but these are not related to the outbreak strain.

“We worked with the firm to help initiate a recall of the lots associated with positive product samples. Proactively, the firm recalled more product than just the lot associated with the positive samples.”

Referred to Friday only as “the firm” in the FDA’s statement, the agency posted a recall notice Oct. 19 from Relish Foods for tuna loins. This week Relish Foods expanded the recall to include more sizes of tuna loins, as well as tuna steaks.

Both recall notices reported FDA testing returned positive results for Salmonella.

Victim wasn’t told about tuna
The FDA’s statement Friday, pointing to the fact that its tests did not show the specific outbreak strain of Salmonella paratyphi, leaves out an important fact, according to Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler.

It’s not unusual for a food product to be contaminated with more than one strain of any given bacteria, Marler said. The neutral spin from the agency on that point isn’t as significant to the attorney as is the lack of transparency during the outbreak investigation.

“The fact that the public wasn’t informed and this (news) came out this way at a county health board meeting is perplexing,” Marler said Friday, “especially when you look at the amount of work public health did, investigating the seafood company, etc.”

Marler’s law firm, Marler Clark LLC, is representing one of the outbreak victims, Crystal McIntyre. The Oregon woman became sick in August after eating tuna sushi at a Hana Sushi restaurant in Tigard, OR.

She was infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella paratyphi, Marler said, and when public health officials were notified — as is required by law for certain illnesses — they interviewed her.

“Health officials interviewed her but didn’t mention to her that tuna could be the source,” Marler said. “The information out of Clark County certainly confirms what the source was for our client.”

The victim’s lawsuit, filed in state Circuit Court in Oregon, names JL Hana Plus LLC doing business as Sushi Hana 10, and Sushi Hana LLC doing business as Sushi Hana LLC as defendants. McIntyre ate tuna sushi the Sushu Hana restaurant on Aug. 18.

Oregon officials had test results Sept. 8 confirming 12 people in the state had infections from Salmonella paratyphi, all with the same DNA fingerprint as five people in Washington state.

By Sept. 15, Oregon officials had positive test results for Salmonella from a specific tuna supplier, but they did not alert the public. The Oregon Department of Agriculture recommended that restaurants put a hold on tuna from that supplier.

The FDA and CDC joined the outbreak investigation Sept. 27, according to Clark County, WA, health officials.

For additional details on the outbreak investigation time line, please see:
Tuna linked to Salmonella outbreak; investigation just revealed

Editor’s note: Bill Marler, founding partner of Marler Clark LLP in Seattle, is publisher of Food Safety News.

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