Politicians as epidemiologists: local council tries to pull rank on health department

As accusations of secrecy and confusion continue over the salmonella outbreak at a Ballarat pizza joint (that’s in Australia, state of Victoria), that sickened 18 and killed one, another local council has said an eatery was incorrectly named and shamed by the health department and the Herald Sun for a food poisoning outbreak.

The Warrnambool Standard reports council staff yesterday declared that the Department of Health got it wrong in its attribution of a salmonella outbreak to Warrnambool’s Sushi & Noodle Canteen.

“Our guys don’t believe that place was the source of the outbreak,” council chief executive Bruce Anson said.

“They reckon (Sushi & Noodle Canteen) is the cleanest place in town. It’s where our health guys buy their sushi. Our guys just don’t believe it’s him … and it could put this poor bloke out of business. We’re seriously concerned this bloke’s been unduly blamed when there was no direct evidence.”

Mr Anson called the health department’s reporting of the Sushi & Noodle Canteen a “statistical issue (rather) than an error”, but unfortunately for the eatery’s owners, that report was used as the basis of a story in Saturday’s Herald Sun. The matter stems from an incident in January last year when seven people from one family contracted salmonella and presented at hospital.

As per protocol, the hospital informed the health department and, according to Mr Anson, informed them that three of the seven people had eaten noodles.

“Not all seven had eaten noodles (but) our guys went through the place from top to bottom, tested all this stuff, looked at all his food storage, cooking processes, checked temperatures … but they found no evidence to say it was him,” Mr Anson said.

“This name and shame stuff is fine … when it’s someone who’s done it 27 times … and is clearly crooked. But we think they’re wrong here (and) it affects this guy and his business.”

In an official statement yesterday, Warrnambool council’s health and local laws manager Murray Murfett said “council investigated an outbreak of salmonella in January last year and found no conclusive evidence linking the outbreak to the Sushi & Noodle Canteen.”

“Council advised the Department of Health that it could not establish a link between the outbreak and any local food outlet,” Mr Murfett said.

But health department senior media adviser Graeme Walker yesterday said the department stood by the report.

“Our public health people found there was direct evidence of the place identified being involved in a small cluster of food safety issues,” Mr Walker said.

Sushi & Noodle Canteen owner Steven Wei said he was perplexed by the Herald Sun article.

“In my shop, everything is clean and the council people come here and double check,” Mr Wei said. “They say everything is good. My shop being in the newspaper like that is not good for business.”

Public health should protect public health and name names; Victoria health types resort to blame the consumer defense

After the belated public notification about a salmonella outbreak linked to Rizzo’s Pizza in Ballarat, Australia, the Herald-Sun uncovered a bunch of other incidents of people barfing in the state of Victoria that were never or belatedly made public.

A poisoning outbreak at a sushi bar that left 84 people sick and 19 in hospital is among serious food safety incidents kept quiet by authorities.

Other cases uncovered include 17 diners who fell acutely ill after eating Vietnamese chicken and pork rolls; 10 people struck down after eating eggs Benedict at a cafe; and 13 people who fell crook from chicken parmigiana at a hotel.

Health department figures show a significant rise in salmonella cases in the past two years, many of them linked to eggs (a table of raw-egg related outbreaks in Australia is available at http://bites.ksu.edu/raw-egg-related-outbreaks-australia).

Brooke Dellavedova, a principal at Maurice Blackburn, said she often heard about food poisoning outbreaks, but new laws meant class actions were difficult to mount on behalf of victims.

"So the proprietors get a slap on the wrist, if that, and that’s the end of the story," she said.

Department of Health spokesman Graeme Walker said the department did not routinely reveal the names of businesses because its role was to identify and remove the source and investigate the cause.

Acting chief health officer Dr Rosemary Lester said the information was not being kept secret and salmonella was common adding, "We do know that many cases of salmonella arise in the home and other outlets.”

This isn’t about where salmonella happens: this is about accountability by publicly-funded health types.

18 sick, 1 dead in Australian salmonella outbreak

A restaurant in Ballarat, northwest of Melbourne, was closed for a week on Dec. 30, 2011, after a cluster of salmonella infections including one death, were linked to the eatery.

A Health Department spokesman confirmed 13 cases of salmonella linked to the eatery, plus another five suspected cases.

Investigations are continuing into whether the death of an elderly man on December 30 is connected to the case.

Health officials said the premises required “a thorough clean-up” and they ordered an extensive overhaul of the business’s food-handling procedures.

Staff were also ordered to undertake more training in food handling.

In another example of repetition-doesn’t-make-it-right, he owner of the business said yesterday he was shocked by the incident.

“We’ve been using the same procedures for 21 years and never had such a thing. We don’t know what caused it but we have done everything the Health Department has asked us to do – everything – but we don’t know if it’s our fault or not.”

The owner said he had changed his supplier of eggs.

While the restaurant has reopened for business, it is still being monitored by Ballarat City Council.

Acting chief executive officer Jeff Pulford declined to say whether charges were pending.

“The matter is the subject of an ongoing investigation in conjunction with the Department of Health and as such it is inappropriate to make any comment,” he said.

If people were getting sick in Dec., the place was shut on Dec. 30, and almost two weeks later the restaurant is reopened with no more details than we’ve changed our egg supplier, it is more than appropriate to make a comment. How are consumers to know whether they should eat at the place or not?