It is Sunday, February 7, 2010; fifteen full days since Daniele Inc announced a recall of its salami products; and almost as long since the companies and investigating health authorities involved have either suspected or known that the ultimate source of illness in this large, and possibly growing outbreak, is black pepper.  But we, the food consuming public, continue to know nothing about the whereabouts of the contaminated pepper.  Why the silence?

To recap:  The CDC now counts 213 confirmed cases of Salmonella montevideo illnesses stretching from July 2009 to the present.  The cases are scattered across the country; 42 states in total; and California, Washington, Illinois, and Massachussets are the hardest hit states, with 30, 15, 13, and 12 cases respectively. Daniele Inc has recalled 1.28 million pounds of potentially contaminated product.  The Rhode Island health department announced on February 3 that it had detected the outbreak strain of Salmonella montevideo in pepper samples from two of Daniele Inc’s pepper suppliers, Overseas Spice Company and Wholesome Spice.  Neither company, nor any government agency involved in the investigation (including FSIS, CDC, and USDA) has announced whether other food companies have received any of the contaminated pepper, or even whether the contaminated pepper is sitting on store shelves.  Nor has there been a recall of the contaminated pepper. 

From a public health standpoint, the proper flow of information would dictate that the public be made aware of where the contaminated pepper is; alternatively, if the companies involved and the governmental agencies investigating the outbreak have information to suggest that there really is no ongoing risk to the public, we should know that too. 

Most of the ire about the slow flow of information in this outbreak exists because of the potential that the outbreak is broader than simply contaminated salami.  We know that it wasn’t the meat that was contaminated; it was contaminated pepper that ultimately caused the meat to become contaminated.  The pepper came from two companies who obviously had the same supplier of pepper.  Those pepper companies, Wholesome and Overseas, likely have more than one customer, thus creating the risk that more than Daniele is in possession of, or has used, the contaminated pepper.  And critically, there has been the suggestion, at least, that some people who are counted as outbreak cases (i.e. confirmed with the outbreak strain of Salmonella montevideo) did not even have any reported consumption of Daniele Inc salami in the days prior to their illnesses.  If true, this means that there must be more products that are making people sick, and may still be on store shelves. 

Some of the ire, though, exists because this is not an isolated instance of the slow flow of information in food outbreaks.  Recall that the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to beef products from National Steak and Poultry was announced on Christmas Eve–probably the worst time possible to announce an outbreak and recall because most consumers simply aren’t paying attention to recalls at that point in time.  Another example is the West Missouri Beef recall of 14,000 pounds of potentially contaminated boneless beef products.  Apparently, the meat was distributed to Chicago-area wholesalers, yet neither FSIS nor the company itself has disclosed the retail locations that received the potentially contaminated products. 

So the silence of the peppers continues.  If there is an ongoing risk to the public, we should have the benefit of knowing that so that we can make an informed choice about what products to buy.  If there is no ongoing risk to the public, we should have the benefit of knowing that information too.