spinach dishJoseph Ryan of The Daily Herald reports that as the tables rapidly filled for lunch at Yanni’s Greek Restaurant in Arlington Heights, TV reports were warning consumers not to eat the veggie — if it was bought in bags.

Yet, no one was telling Liakouras that his spinach, purchased from a distributor, wasn’t safe. He didn’t know what to do. The manager called his spinach providers to see what they thought, but eventually he figured, “Why even take the risk?”

By late afternoon, he pulled spinach from eight classic dishes. A week later, the manager remains in the dark. “No one has actually told us not to serve spinach,” he says.

In the hours and days following federal warnings not to eat fresh spinach, Liakouras had plenty of company in his confusion. A close examination of early response in the Chicago area to the nationwide spinach scare reveals apparent gaps in the public alert system, leading some experts to question whether the state is really prepared for something far worse — bird flu, bioterrorism or an even more deadly E. coli outbreak.

Chicago area county health departments all responded to the federal alerts differently, with DuPage and Cook doing almost nothing to inform consumers or businesses and McHenry, Kane and Lake picking up the phone to go above and beyond. The state leaves it up to counties to relay information locally, and provides no rules on how to get the message out.

“You can almost look at this as a practice for if we ever get hit by a bioterrorism incident,” said John Sorensen, director of the Emergency Management Center at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He studies response efforts to natural and terrorism disasters and disease outbreaks.

“Certainly if I was a member of the public, I would find the inconsistency somewhat confusing and wouldn’t know if I should eat spinach or serve spinach,” he added. Following a late night warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 14, health officials in Lake, Kane and McHenry counties made phone calls and sent out mass faxes to ensure restaurants and grocery stores stopped serving fresh spinach. Just across county lines, DuPage and Cook health officials – overseeing most of the region’s population — only posted the info on the Web.

Part of the varying response may be traced to the perception the national outbreak was not affecting Illinois because no one in the state had been reported with the bacteria infection. Yet, in fact, there was a state case that no one knew about.

A woman in LaSalle County came down with E. coli-like symptoms in late August, much like the rest of those in the national outbreak. She was admitted to a hospital the first week of September, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. On Sept. 10, E. coli was identified as the culprit through hospital tests, later confirmed by the state. But it wasn’t until a “fingerprint” of the specific E. coli outbreak was released by the FDA that the state could test the LaSalle County woman for a connection, said state health spokeswoman Kimberly Parker. The state conducted that test on Friday, Sept. 15, and the results came back positive the following Monday, finally adding Illinois to the list of affected states.

Meanwhile, county public health officials in the Chicago area — not to mention residents and businesses — went about the weekend assuming Illinois was untouched by the spinach scare. In Cook and DuPage, that might have tamed the urgency of telling businesses to get spinach off shelves and menus.

“If there was something going on locally or people being affected locally, we certainly would be taking a very local approach,” said Cook County health spokeswoman Kitty Loewy. DuPage health spokesman Dave Hass said the county’s notification didn’t go beyond the Web because “we did not have any local cases.” Loewy said Cook County lacks the resources or technology to place warning calls or faxes to every business.

She also said the county didn’t send out e-mail alerts to suburban mayors to help disperse the responsibility of informing the public, something regularly done with local West Nile or flu outbreaks. Loewy said that would have happened if there were a local case. Nothing has changed in either county’s approach since the Illinois case was discovered because there have been no actual cases in those counties. In McHenry and Lake counties, however, health officials say they sense urgency regardless of whether they have an identified local case.