There’s a troubling trend popping up in our food safety-related Google Alerts: public health folks looking less-than-transparent by blocking the releases of outbreak and illness information. Releasing the details on an investigation or exposure can reduce immediate public health impacts and lead to better informed decision-making by consumers.
Last week A health alert was issued by Maine officials stating that people may have been exposed to the hep a after a food handler tested positive somewhere in Cumberland County. Bizarrely, that’s all they said (except for check your poop and urine). Patrons eating at any restaurants in the county might have been exposed to hepatitis A. Or maybe not.
The Portland Press-Herald highlighted issues with the state’s Center for Disease Control funding as a root cause, arguing that practice of protecting the business shouldn’t outweigh the public health impacts:
[T]he state has refused to name the restaurant, saying that to do so would “risk identifying” the employee, thus violating patient privacy laws. This is a puzzling departure from previous practice; last year, the Maine CDC identified the site of a church supper where about 100 people were potentially exposed to the virus. And in 2008, a state alert about a cluster of hepatitis A cases noted that several of those affected were students at the same school, which the state named.
The state has also emphasized that it didn’t learn of the potential Cumberland County exposure until after a 14-day window for restaurant patrons to receive a preventive vaccine. But naming the site is still a valid protective measure. Because the symptoms of hepatitis A can mimic the signs of flu or chronic fatigue, people who know they may have been exposed to the virus are more likely than others to raise the possibility with their doctor and receive the right diagnosis and treatment.
In somewhat related news, NBC Connecticut reports that following a couple of cases of salmonellosis linked to a pizza place, health officials aren’t super forthcoming with information.
“It was one of the worst experiences I have ever dealt with in my life,” said Kamran Niazi, recalling the effects of three slices of chicken pizza from Oregano Joe’s on Boston Post Road in Orange. “I had 104-degree fever, diarrhea – extreme diarrhea – extreme vomiting.
Niazi said doctors told him he had a bad case of salmonella, and he wasn’t alone.
“One of the doctors actually told me there was one other person in the hospital who ate at the same place, Oregano Joe’s, and he was in very bad condition as well,” Niazi said.
But when he was released from the hospital, Niazi couldn’t get any information on his case from the Orange Health Department, even though inspectors had called him with questions while he was hospitalized.
Now Niazi and his attorney, Jose Rojas, are suing Oregano Joe’s for $15,000 to cover Niazi’s hospital bills.
The Orange Health Department and the state DPH cite several statutes that they said forbid them from speaking with the Troubleshooters about any information in a food-borne illness case.
The Orange Health Department told the Troubleshooters it has ordered Oregano Joe’s to close down twice, once for a day on May 30 and then again on June 20 for a span of five weeks. But the department won’t say why.
Some information is available on the Oregano Joe’s closings, but not from the health department. When the restaurant owner needed to get inside during one of the closures, police had to let him in.
An officer wrote in his report that the owner said the health department was “shutting down his business… due to multiple confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning.”
Court papers from Niazi’s case against the health department indicate Oregano Joe’s was served with a violation for “falsified employee stool samples” during one of its investigations this year.
What I really want to know about is the falsified employee stool samples (and the conversation that went along with acquiring them).