Today, the Rhode Island Department of health announced that the pepper that Daniele Inc used to produce its salami–now the subject of a major recall and outbreak–was contaminated, not the meat itself Pepper has been suspected as the source of this outbreak since at least January 23, 2010, if not before. A little frighteningly, Rhode Island also says that pepper from both of Daniele Inc’s suppliers has tested positive for the outbreak strain (suggesting a common grower or shipper) of salmonella, and that a number of outbreak victims may not have eaten salami at all. What’s the implication? That more than just Daniele Inc. has received contaminated black pepper. Is it in your home now?
The problem that this scenario brings to light is that the public is clearly not getting the information that it should . . . and in a timely fashion. As I posted earlier today, the suppliers of pepper to Daniele (Oversees Spice Company and Wholesome Spice) should publicly disclose the list of customers who bought, or may have bought, the contaminated pepper. After all, the fact that some of the people sickened with the outbreak strain of salmonella in this outbreak, and who did not have an exposure to salami, suggests that other food producers may in fact have received the contaminated pepper as well, and they may be producing and selling food that is contaminated. Maybe the FDA doesn’t have enough information to establish just who that or those food producers are, but Oversees and Wholesome could certainly protect a lot of people by disclosing their customer list.
This problem–i.e. the stagnant flow of information in food outbreaks–is not all on food suppliers either. Timely information published in a manner that effectively passes the information to the consuming public is not a strong point of our government either. Bill Marler authored a highly insightful blog post several days ago about this problem. Asking "why the silence of the steaks and the perjury of the peppers," he stated as follows:
why do the US Government and US Business not believe in Capitalism? The one thing that makes capitalism – free markets – work is knowledge and transparency. If you know who poisoned you, you can stop buying food from them. However, here – especially here – the government and industry do everything they can to not tell us the facts. In both instances they put the information out on a holiday or a Friday night, so no one but a loser blogger would be paying attention. More importantly is the fact that they withhold information about the ultimate source of the contamination? Why not say whom the supplier of steaks and trim is? Why not let the public know who produced the peppers and where they are from?
As for steaks, the event that got Bill talking was the recall of 124 tons of tenderized beef products manufactured by National Steak and Poultry and sold to a variety of major restaurant chains throughout the country. The recall was announced by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service on . . . Christmas Eve. Other than a few lawyers and the CDC, who is paying attention to FSIS recall notices on Christmas Eve? Or the following day? Or really any day for the rest of the year? And for that matter, on New Year’s day too? Virtually nobody, particularly not a very significant percentage of the food consuming public.
This kind of information should not come on Christmas Eve, Friday night, or any other time of the year clearly designed to lessen the flow of information to the public, thereby protecting the interests only of the business that manufactured or sold the contaminated product. Eddie Gehman Kohan said it much better on her blog, Obamafoodorama.com, posing the question "How is it possible that a blogger notifies the public of a new Class I (you could die) recall of 1,240,000 pounds of meat before USDA does?":
It’s a grim situation when a private citizen is more on the ball than the federal agency that’s supposed to be managing national food safety concerns (CDC’s own e mail heads-up about the outbreak included no information, except that a product sold nationally was contaminated with Salmonella Montevideo).
If the answer to these valid questions is that notifying the public will encourage lawsuits, or make them easier to prove, the failure to do so is only going to allow outbreaks to happen. And that’s when the lawyers come in.