Once again science trumps government when it comes to open, easy and meaningful access to the information we need. A Listeria monocytogenes outbreak and related recall of pasteurized chocolate milk in Canada was ever so lightly reported by public health agencies back in 2016.

We covered the recall, expanded recall, and government warning in June 2016. The situation pretty much fell off radar screens after that.

This week, thanks to the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’ve seen the rest of the story.

The outbreak, linked to Neilson brand chocolate milk sold by Montreal-based Saputo Inc., sickened at least 34 people, killing four. All but two of the victims were so sick they had to be hospitalized. All of the confirmed victims lived in Ontario. Most were elderly people, though their ages ranged from less than 1 to 90 years old.

People were sickened in two waves, but all are considered part of the single outbreak linked to Neilson brand partially skimmed chocolate milk. Illness onset dates for the first wave of victims were Nov. 14, 2015, through Feb. 14, 2016. The victims in the second wave became sick between April 11 and June 20, 2016.

There’s little doubt that more people were sickened by the milk sold by Saputo Inc. It can take up to 70 days after exposure to Listeria monocytogenes for the symptoms of listeriosis to develop.

Do you remember what you ate and drank 7 days ago? How about 70 days ago? 

Epidemiologists know about the limitations of human memory when it comes to such details. But, being scientists, they almost never speculate about possible cases. They deal in facts, and the fact is only 34 people were diagnosed, underwent confirmation testing, and had their cases reported to public health officials.

Of the confirmed sick people, many bought the implicated milk at the same grocery stores. Lab tests showed the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes in the milk and in the facility where it was produced, according to the research report published in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

“Environmental sampling at the manufacturer confirmed the presence of the outbreak strain within a post-pasteurization pump dedicated to chocolate milk and on nonfood contact surfaces. This post-process contamination of the chocolate milk line was believed to be the root cause of the outbreak,” according to the research report.

“A harborage site might have been introduced by a specific maintenance event or poor equipment design. The equipment was subsequently replaced, and corrective measures were implemented to prevent reoccurrence. Chocolate milk production was resumed after vigorous testing for L. monocytogenes under regulatory oversight.”

Forget Waldo, where’s the info?
Considering the striking information reported by researchers, I started crawling around on various websites of public health and food safety agencies in Canada. There was little to find. I contacted Public Health Ontario.

A “communications advisor” got back to me in a couple of hours. That’s impressive in terms of response time in these situations.

The response itself was much less impressive. It turns out there is “an internal final summary of the outbreak.” That’s gov’mint speak for “the public can’t see it.” 

The health department press officer provided a link to the research reported in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in case I wanted additional details. Umm, that journal article is what sent me knocking on your email door.

I specifically asked why the release of the information was delayed.

Answer: “The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care (MOHTLC), the organization that informs the public during provincial outbreak investigations, released a joint statement from the Minister of Health and the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) about the outbreak on Jan. 20, 2016, and the CMOH issued a follow-up statement on June 12, 2016 after the cause of the outbreak was identified and the chocolate milk was recalled. Public Health Ontario also posted a notice on our website, which was regularly updated between January and October 2016. The final notice remains on our website. We suggest contacting the MOHTLC if you have more questions about this.” 

To save you a click, here what the “final notice” says:

“The provincial outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes which began in November 2015 was declared over on July 29, 2016. A total of 34 cases were linked to the outbreak with the majority being older adults. The cases were from 16 public health units in Ontario. The source of the outbreak was determined to be Neilson brand partly skimmed milk”

Call me a reporter, call me instinctively curious, call me anything you want, but shouldn’t a final report on any outbreak be more than 58 words? Shouldn’t  such a report include whether anyone died, and if there were deaths, how many? 

Shouldn’t such information be less difficult to find with the naked eye? Or, do we need to develop a device to reveal public safety information the way microscopes reveal bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes.  

It’s like all the best food safety nerds and activists say: If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it.

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