On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its final report on a 2011 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to romaine lettuce. The report states that 58 people in nine states were confirmed ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections, including 33 who were hospitalized. Missouri suffered the most, with 38 people sickened. Though multiple state and local health investigations, lawsuits, and media reports have named Schnucks supermarkets and Vaughan Foods as the retailer and supplier of the lettuce implicated in the E. coli outbreak, the CDC is still referring only to “Grocery Chain A” and “Farm A”.
“At this point it is public knowledge that Schnucks and Vaughan Foods had a role in this outbreak,” said foodborne illness attorney and food safety advocate William Marler. “The CDC states that it saves lives, protects people, and saves money through prevention. How does trying to keep the public in the dark accomplish any of these objectives?
“By keeping these companies’ names secret, the CDC may be trying to protect businesses, but is ultimately doing the public a disservice by quashing important data that could otherwise help consumers make informed decisions about what to eat and where to shop.”
The E. coli O157:H7 outbreak was first announced on October 27, 2011 when the St. Louis County Health Department confirmed that 14 people had become ill with E. coli infections from an unconfirmed food source. As the investigation progressed, many victims reported eating salads at Schnucks salad bars, leading Schnucks stores in the St. Louis region to voluntarily pull select items from the salad bars. By October 31, county health officials named Schnucks as the likely source of the outbreak. On December 7, the CDC released a report which linked 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 2011, Marler’s law firm, 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.
The CDC recently came under fire for its handling of a January, 2012 Salmonella outbreak that sickened 68 in 10 states when the agency identified the source of the contaminated food but refused to name the restaurant responsible, referring only to it as “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 revealed the chain in question to be Taco Bell.