Calls for Increased Transparency in Foodborne Illness Investigations

On April 20, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an updated report on a burgeoning Salmonella Bareilly outbreak linked to a raw tuna product used in sushi dishes.  According to the report, 160 people have been confirmed ill and 26 have been hospitalized across 20 states and the District of Columbia.  

The CDC indicates that the tuna product, known as Nakaochi Scrape, was distributed to restaurants and retailers by California-based importer Moon Marine USA.  The report states that 84% of victims consumed “spicy tuna” and that a total of 7 restaurants and retailers associated with multiple Salmonella cases have been identified.  The CDC and other public health agencies (FDA, USDA) have thus far failed to mention where the contaminated product was consumed or purchased – something food safety expert and Salmonella attorney William Marler finds 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. “History has shown us that such behavior can be incredibly detrimental to food safety.”  Marler notes at least four other situations in which the CDC did not identify companies involved in foodborne illness outbreaks.

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 Schnuck’s 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 [1]. 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 a lot sooner.” 

“This trend of data suppression is disconcerting at best,” added Marler. “The CDC states that it saves lives, protects people, and saves money through prevention. I’m not sure how suppressing data accomplishes any of these goals.”