Roy E Costa, R.S., M.S./M.B.A.

In yet another blatant case of disregard for public health and safety by the food industry we have a report that the McDonald’s in Rock Island, Illinois at the center of a hepatitis outbreak lied about their knowledge of an infected employee. Even more disturbing the local health department did not inform the public for 6 weeks after learning of the first case in an employee. Even as cases of hepatitis were being reported in the community the health department kept that knowledge to themselves.

It appears that it was not until a second case in a McDonald’s employee arose that they informed the public of the threat. New information has surfaced in the media that the Rock Island County Health Department was aware of the ill employee as early as June 9th, yet took no action to inform the public.

Health departments always tell the operator when they find a HEP A case at a restaurant. Since they knew, the operator must have known. Why did the operator lie? Why did the health department lie?

The facts about the situation are still materializing. Today the local media reported that the first employee diagnosed with hepatitis informed management of her condition in the last week of June.

But the media reported that the health department was also aware of the case as early as June 9th.

If the health department already knew, this might explain why management did nothing as the result of the employee informing management on June 25th or 26th.

The health department was finding serious sanitation conditions for several months before the outbreak and it appears the intensity of inspection and violation findings grew over time. The media reports repeated findings of excessive bare hand contact of foods. Yet there appears to be no action on the part of the authorities to take action against the operator or to stop the obvious exposures.

It appears this outbreak has many of the same attributes as PCA; lying by top management, failure of the health authorities to do their jobs, and perhaps, a cover up. Also note that just a day or two ago the health department said it was unaware of the first case of hepatitis in an employee, even remarking that the clinician who diagnosed the case failed to report the case to them. Now the media reports they knew about it, this came about as a result of a review of inspection records. Of course all we have at this point is the media reports, but they are definitely at odds with the statements and scenarios painted so far by both the McDonald’s and the agency. Barring any mistake on the part of the media as to who knew what and when, this whole affair appears to incriminate the operator and the agency.

I particularly took notice of the statement by the owner of the McDonald’s that he has a great track record with the health department, and that the health department had not confirmed that the McDonald’s was the source of the virus. This is ironic because it may be just this type of "great relationship" that led to the dozens now infected.

This story has all the hallmarks of a cover up but the charade seems to be coming apart. Health departments should remember they are there to protect the public, not the industry, and sovereign immunity does not protect agents individually in cases of malfeasance or dereliction of duty.

Undoubtedly we will hear the management at this franchise (this can’t be a corporate store!) try to discredit the employee who blew the whistle on this ugly looking affair, or the manager who allegedly received the report. Just how much backpedaling and smokescreens the public will accept remains to be seen, but with the number of ill and near hysteria, a song and dance will not cut it. As Bill Marler said in this situation, thank God for a free press.

Roy E Costa, R.S., M.S./M.B.A.
Public Health Sanitarian Consultant
Environ Health Associates, Inc