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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

So, Why do Public Health Agencies NOT name Taco Bell in publications?

Why is the public left to guess or hope for a reporter (or lawyer) to spill the beans (would they be refried)?

After the CDC published its report a few days ago on 68 Salmonella illnesses linked to “Mexican-style fast food restaurant chain, Restaurant Chain A,” it got me thinking and looking for other examples of unnamed restaurants poisoning people. I did find two 2010 Salmonella outbreaks (180 sick) linked to “Mexican-style fast food Restaurant Chain A.” Taco Bell was later implicated as the mystery restaurant.

I was then reminded that in mid-November 1999, a cluster of children with infections caused by the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 occurred in several states. Case-control studies found an association between illness and eating beef tacos (undercooked) at Taco Bell restaurants. A traceback investigation implicated a beef supplier; a farm investigation was not possible because of inadequate record keeping by the supplier. A total of 14 cases (perhaps as many as 21) of E. coli O157:H7 infections with matching PFGE patterns were identified. The patients resided in California, Arizona, and Nevada. Five (36 percent) were hospitalized and three (21 percent) had the hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

San Francisco media covered the story in 1999 and named Taco Bell as the source. However, the CDC in a publication noted the outbreak, but did not name the restaurant. Taco Bell also remained unnamed by the California Department of Health in a 2004 publication – a retrospective five-year look at foodborne outbreaks.

Then, a Major Article in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Disease was published in 2004: “A Multistate Outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 Infection Linked to Consumption of Beef Tacos at a Fast-Food Restaurant Chain.” And, once again the reader was left with only “a national Mexican-style fast-food restaurant chain” as the source of three customers near death experiences.

My thought is that consumers have a right to know who sickened them specifically and the general public has the same right to have the information to make choices of where they spend their money.

Accurate knowledge allows consumers to make informed decisions in a free market economy. Perhaps if outbreak investigators realized that their work is important and trusted by the public, they would understand that the public could be trusted with the facts.

So, help me here, whats the reason for not naming names?  And, given that Taco Bell was linked to a 2006 E. coli outbreak that sickened 78, and the below video, are health officials now really worried about bad public relations?

And, what if it is Taco TIme or Taco whomever?

  • Brian Sauders

    A regulatory arena where identification of source is made only when the smoking gun, er, I mean source of contamination is identified beyond a doubt. Remember what happened in the spring of 2008 when CDC announced it was the tomatoes in the large multi-state outbreak and then it was the jalapeno peppers. As a regulatory scientist, consumer, and citizen I would much prefer that these associations be made public. It would really put the pressure on food producers to look closely at preventing contamination and illness within their operations. Look at how Jack-in-the-Box turned around after the 1994 O157 outbreak. One can argue about the nutritional value of their menu, but their response to their outbreak pushed huge changes up to the federal level. Alas, it is the burden of being wrong and industry influence on government that keeps this information from the public. Obviously a gray area, but we need to challenge our system to do better.

  • Gil Ramirez

    Taco Bell’s P.R. folks must’ve paid FDA/CDC officials a visit…

  • Steve

    FULL AND IMMEDIATE DISCLOSURE WOULD RING TACO’S BELL, PRONTO…

  • Laura

    Sure there is a right to know, but I imagine that the people who got sick are fully aware of where it was that they got the smoking gun, er, taco. They probably were in contact with the health authority and asked detailed questions about their food history of 2-3 days leading up to the illness to narrow down the culprits. Communicable Disease/Epi Teams are involved in gathering data and identifying the source. Retail Food Regulatory Specialists descend upon the source establishment to do a thorough evaluation and look for implicated foods, collect food samples, ensure product disposal and identify any possible breakdown in operations and initiate traceback activities that are needed. It is amazing how fast Health Authorities are able to pinpoint a source and nip the problem in the bud. Press releases are typically issued regarding foodborne illness outbreaks as an extra measure to alert the public (and physicians) to be on the lookout for symptoms and to contact the Health Authority immediately as symptoms are realized. If the media doesn’t pick up a press release, what else can a Health Authority do? Even with paid advertising of such an event there is a breakdown in communication.
    I can see that if the health authority has already done an investigation and discovered the food safety problem…and eliminated future risk through food disposal or corrective action plans, that shouting “RestaurantA” from the rooftops would serve no purpose other than to damage the reputation of the establishment…who certainly had no intention of making anyone ill. At what point does a Health Authority cross the line by publicizing a now “historical event” and pointing the finger? And if it is a food supply issue…not a retail food handling issue…why punish the restaurant for something a grower or food manufacturer did when the restaurant likely purchased the product in good faith?

  • Chuck Treser

    I can think of a couple good reasons not release the information early on in the investigation. Until the agent and suspect food are actually identified, it is not prudent to publicly release the potential information on the source/establishment(s) because:
    a) the preliminary suspect may turn out to be wrong (see Brian’s example below); and
    b) it is important to determine whether the problem lies solely within the suspect establishment or chain, or whether it is with the producer/supplier/distributor and thus there may be additional establishments with the same problem. It would not do to give consumers a false sense of safety that the problem has been restricted to one store or chain, or locality.

    However, once the environmental public health investigators are reasonably sure of their findings, then I can see no reason why this information should not be readily and widely made available. Indeed from my perspective, public health considerations would demand that complete information be made public as soon as possible.

  • Domenic Losito

    Yes, even in Canada the agencies involved (CFIA federally and previously Health Canada; regional and provincial health inspection agnecies) tend to err on the side of not divulging, just in case the epidemiological evidence has pointed the finger at the wrong source. I think that in government these days (recently retired from 36 years as Director of Health Protection for Vancouver Coastal Health – yes, the host city for Olympics 2010) there is too much influence from the corporate lawyers and risk managers (sorry Bill) and protection of privacy folks and not enough common sense that you’ve promoted in your blog.
    I recall a botulism outbreak in 1985 where garilic in oil was implicated and the restaurant chain (White Spot, which by the way survived and is thriving) executive went to the Mayor of Vancouver to muzzle the medical health officer (Dr. John Blatherwick) who told the media that the White Spot restaurant was the source of the contaminated food which affected 35 customers.

  • Laura, Chuck and Dom – thanks for the comments, but I am not convinced. First, this was a FINAL report on an outbreak that went on for several months. If there was a risk of it not being the right restaurant, I would agree that premature disclosure would be wrong, but that is not the case here. As for being unfair to this poor restaurant – hmmm, how many outbreaks has Taco Bell been implicated in. I listed 2 and counting this one 3, but what about 2006? Perhaps consumers should know that a restaurant chain has problems with suppliers?

  • Sam

    One should be surprised if they DON’T get sick from eating at Taco Bell!

  • Gabrielle Meunier

    After PFGE testing identifies the cause and there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, the culprit should be named. The issue with tomotatoes and peppers in 2008/2009 was traceback. I do not think this is the case with a national chain restaurant. If they can’t do traceback, they should not be in business. The only way to get safer food is for a company to admit they have a problem and to deal with it head on, just like Sara Lee did. Sara Lee is now a better company for it, but if it had been swept under the rug, they may not be.

  • Mrs. Mudder

    Hello Bill,
    This topic is very heated!! The food business is very aware of who is who and who did what. Their records are kept in such a way to find these answers! But, WHY is this still going on, I need answers, too. I have been in the food business and I know cover-up is the safety net for profit. We pay for this dirty food thru our taxes and product price and we still get sick or die, wrongly. WHY?
    Please, Bill, how can I help to get this huge problem fixed! Perhaps, we need some Food Poison Detectives to find the answers!!
    Respectively,
    Mrs. Mudder

  • Paul F Schwarz

    Maybe congress should be served Taco Bell at the capital cafe! There would be some action after a fine meal like Taco Bell. I would throw in some Jensen Farms cantaloupe for good measure!

  • Javaguy

    Bill: FYI a quick check of Taco Time’s store locator shows the nearest store to Texas to be located in Iowa and then Colorado.

  • Name them! Disclosure would soon force suppliers/restaurants to tighten up on their food safety systems…. if there are no consequences then there will be no change in behaviour. The consumer needs to be protected, not the supplier – and if it happens once, and the company gets away with it, it will surely happen again (as we see with Taco Bell).
    In fact I think their should be a log kept of multiple offenders… let the public have the right to make FULLY informed decisions about their health and where/what they will eat…
    But by all means, it should be verified evidence…

  • Cathy Lape

    As always my comment remains- Thank You Bill for bringing this information to us. If all these agencies won’t we can still count on you. Keep you the great work.

  • Javaguy

    Bill: FYI a quick check of Taco Time’s store locator shows the nearest store to Texas to be located in Iowa and then Colorado.

  • Good point, but there are alot of Taco Bells:
    http://www.urbanspoon.com/ch/301/356436/Texas/Taco-Bell

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  • Taco Beuno ceo

    What is the CDC for if not to disclose outbreaks or health issues? They are so quick to blame sponge-bob for kids being add but cover this up? I know,I’m probably wrong on the cartoon comment. Now a run to the border!!