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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

It is past time for transparency in public health

stock-illustration-3153394-mexican-restaurant-elements.jpgLynne Shackleford and I likely did not make friends in South Carolina public health today. She for even writing an article – “State agency criticized for refusal to name Spartanburg restaurant linked to E. coli.” And, me for criticizing a South Carolina Health Department during a break today speaking on last years cantaloupe Listeria outbreak at the Colorado State Health Department.

Here is the issue:

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control confirmed Friday it is investigating 11 cases associated with the same restaurant, but has declined to identify the establishment. Two of the cases are patients with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which is characterized by kidney failure caused by E. coli.

DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said he understands the concerns of consumers, but the agency does not believe there is a current health risk. He said inspectors visited the restaurant on Friday, and it scored 96 out of 100 on an inspection.

“When it comes to balancing business interests with the public’s health, we’re always going to make a decision based on what’s in the best interest of the health of our citizens,” DHEC Director Catherine Templeton said in a written statement. “If we had any reason to believe there was ongoing transmission of disease or a current public health threat, we would readily disclose more information about the restaurant associated with the disease outbreak investigation.”

I had a different take:

A nationally recognized food safety advocate is lambasting DHEC’s decision to keep the name of the restaurant under wraps.

“People have a right to know. Consumers have a right to decide if they want to eat at a particular place, and it makes no sense to me how DHEC can justify protecting them while putting a target — literally a target — on every other Mexican restaurant in that area,” said Bill Marler, a nationally recognized attorney and author who specializes in food-borne illness cases….

Marler has represented thousands of clients in claims against food companies, securing more than $600 million for victims of E. coli, Salmonella and other food-borne illnesses. He has testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce and is a national speaker on food safety issues.

“When you hide information from people, it distorts the free market,” Marler said. “If people don’t know why people are getting sick, or the source of that illness, they can’t vote with their pocketbooks and nothing ever changes. Why would a restaurant change its practices if there’s no accountability? There’s no incentive to change.” …

If it’s a mass production supply issue, Marler said, multiple restaurants in this area, and even in multiple states could have been affected.

Marler doesn’t favor a state law specifying a timeline for when an agency should disclose the name of a restaurant once it has been linked to a food-borne illness because it takes time to investigate and positively trace bacteria to a facility.

“They should get the data right, release the name to the public and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

Social media and the Internet have opened the door for people to warn others of the culprit in food poisoning cases, he said.

“It’s different nowadays because of social media and the Internet,” Marler said. “You can’t — and I’m not suggesting you should — but you can’t hide names anymore.”

It is time to give the public its right to know.

  • Paul F Schwarz

    The restaurant scored a 96 out of 100. This inspection was some time after the outbreak. What was the DEHC waiting for? it sounds like a case of CYA. Jensen farms scored a 96% passing inspection as well. The result of that ‘inspection’ was 36 dead (plus 1 miscarriage) and 146 sickened with Listeria!
    The bottom line is people aren’t doing their jobs to protect us!
    Paul A Schwarz Jr
    Section 51 Row 1 Grave 3 Ft Leavenworth/Leavenworth National Cemetery

  • Mary

    I hope this comment is approved. A previous one at FSN was not, apparently.
    This is nothing new. I don’t live in South Carolina, but my state is also circumspect when it comes to reporting outbreaks. I’m not going to go into the detail that I did in the previous comment on FSN, but I was involved with a foodborne illness outbreak investigation where the state dept. of health refused to disclose information to the public. The outbreak was somewhat contained to a summer sports camp at a local college campus, but there was no guarantee it would remain so, especially since it took some time to pinpoint the source and the organism involved.
    As for the high inspection scores, that’s not uncommon after an outbreak. A food establishment is going to be a stickler for following the rules in the immediate aftermath of an outbreak. The problems that led to the outbreak are usually resolved, at least for a time. Despite food safety certification classes, most restaurant owners and managers never think an outbreak can happen to them. It often takes an outbreak or a complaint for them to literally clean up their act.
    Furthermore, the public seems to have a misconception that food safety and sanitation inspections are pass/fail, and/or the inspectors can and do shut down restaurants or food manufacturers and suppliers on the spot . In most cases inspections are not pass/fail and inspectors either don’t have the authority or don’t use the authority to shut down a facility.
    While there are certainly lax inspectors, the public needs to keep in mind that it is up to the the people who run a food establishment to follow the appropriate food safety and sanitation rules. While some facilities have federal inspectors on hand every day they operate, that is not the norm. The norm is that inspectors have a huge number of places to inspect and can only inspect any one place a few times a year at most. Inspectors cannot be everywhere. It is up to the managers and owners of food production facilities and retail food establishments to know and follow the rules day in and day out.