Citing previous instances in which government suppression of data in foodborne illness outbreaks has proven misguided, food safety expert and attorney William Marler calls on DHEC to release the name of the Mexican restaurant responsible for the recent E. coli outbreak.
According to South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) officials a “Spartanbug-area Mexican restaurant” is to blame for a recent E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. While health officials have stated that victims became ill during the last week of April and the first week of May, they have opted not to disclose the restaurant’s name – something that many, including food safety expert and E. coli attorney William Marler, as well as area Mexican restaurants whose business is, or may be, affected by DHEC’s failure to identify the restaurant – find troubling.
“Our public health agencies are fantastic at detecting the source of an outbreak; however it is a disservice to American consumers when these agencies fail to disclose their findings to the public,” said Marler. “Not only is it unfair to the other “Spartanburg-area Mexican restaurants” that are not at fault, but history has shown us that such behavior can be incredibly detrimental to food safety.”
Health officials maintain that it is unnecessary to publically name the restaurant because it no longer poses a health threat. However, citing previous outbreaks, Marler argues that a practice of data suppression can have negative long term consequences.
2012 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, publically it has only named “a Mexican-style fast food chain restaurant – Restaurant Chain A”. Reporters at Food Safety News, a daily online news source sponsored by Marler Clark, ultimately learned from the Oklahoma State Department of Health that the chain in question was Taco Bell.
2011 Schnucks Romaine Lettuce E. coli Outbreak
In October of 2011, health officials in Missouri announced that they were investigating an E. coli outbreak. By October 31, county health officials named romaine lettuce from Schnucks 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, Schnucks confirmed that it was “Chain A”, though it refused to name its lettuce supplier.
In December of 2011, Marler Clark filed two separate lawsuits against Schnucks on behalf of people who were hospitalized due to E. coli O157:H7 infections contracted in the outbreak . Marler Clark added Moore, Oklahoma-based Vaughan Foods to both lawsuits when, through its own investigation, the law firm learned the company was the supplier of E. coli-contaminated romaine lettuce to Schnucks stores.
2009 Caudill Seed 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 Seed Company. 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 Outbreak
It has become common knowledge that a 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened over 500, 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. 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,” said Marler. “Perhaps if Jimmy John’s had been publically identified as playing a role in the 2009 Salmonella outbreak the company would’ve taken corrective food safety measures and stopped selling sprouts sooner. And, in each of these cases, perhaps innocent people wouldn’t have been needlessly sickened, hospitalized, and killed.”