To recall or not recall is normally not the question.  Typically, when commentators take issue with the manner in which recalls are conducted, it is that the recall was done in a stealthy manner–e.g. on a Friday night when most people aren’t paying attention; on Christmas Eve; or without an announcement to the public in the FDA’s recall database

The question of recall after the Jimmy Johns sprouts E. coli outbreak may, or may not, be a little different.  That depends on whether the seeds, which were obviously (i.e. epidemiologically) the problem, have actually been recalled.  The answer to that question is either “no, they haven’t been,” or “yes, they have been, but neither the 14 people ill in Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin and Arkansas are entitled to know about it, nor is the public generally.”

Frankly, either response is poor.  If the seeds haven’t been recalled, the company’s (and industry’s) reasoning is surely that the supplier knew where all the seeds went and received 100% response to an immediate and timely request from the supplier to return or destroy the contaminated seed.  If the seeds have been recalled, then it is another one of those “stealthy recalls” that have recently come under fire at Food Safety News and by Phyllis Entis (See James Andrews article today titled “When should recalls be made public?).  I have monitored the FDA recall database daily since this outbreak was announced and have seen nothing.

These are not good justifications for either the (1) inaction or (2) stealthy action that has taken place in this outbreak.  People have known things to be true in the past that weren’t, and when dealing with a pathogen as lethal as shiga-toxin producing E. coli, it is a risky proposition to assume that sprouters and suppliers have the internal traceability to guarantee that each seed from a contaminated lot has been properly disposed of, even if its an honestly held belief.  Or, just maybe, the supplier sold this lot of seed to only the sprouters known to have produced the sprouts involved in this outbreak. 

Interested parties have all kinds of disagreements on the recall system generally, but one thing is clear.  This is a Class I recall situation.  There is a serious public health threat posed by this product (remember, Michigan was only able to link its 2, and possibly 7, illnesses to the outbreak on Friday, Februaryt 24, almost 10 days after the CDC’s original announcement; and even the CDC’s outbreak summary indicates that not all of the bodies may have been counted yet.) 

CDC is not naming companies who cause national outbreaks; FDA is not timely publishing recalls; California is not issuing reports anymore on major produce-related outbreaks; and etc., etc., etc.  Every time a new twist on this trend comes up, there are new explanations for why we, the customers, don’t get to know about what’s going on.  Has anybody in the relevant positions of power (i.e. public health officials and the industry, who know all the details about these situations) ever round-tabled the concept of full and timely public disclosure?  The media vortex that surrounded the spinach crisis in 2006, and probably the cantaloupe crisis in 2011, only helped to make the industry more accountable.  I doubt that more secrecy will have the same beneficial effect.