In a country where reporting foodborne illness is deemed unpatriotic an investigation by France Inter radio revealed that at least 10 people died in the Franche-Comté region in the east of France linked to two cheeses made from unpasteurized milk in late 2015 and early 2016.
The investigation produced a document which showed that in January 2016 national health authorities had discovered an unusually high number of salmonella contaminations in France that was centred on Franche-Comté.
Five cheese making companies in the region, between them making 60 different brands, were later identified as being at the source of the contaminations that began in November 2015 and continued until April the following year.
In a way that is truly French in its description, those who died in the outbreak were old people who were physically weak or who suffered from another illness.
Jean-Yves Mano, the president of the CLCV consumer association, said he was surprised that a product recall had not been ordered of products that might have been infected with salmonella.
“We do not understand why a general alert was not issued by state officials, or at least information given on what precautions to take,” he told France Inter.
The state food agency, the Direction générale de l’alimentation (DGAL), said there were two reasons why a recall was not ordered.
The first was that it would have allegedly been very difficult to identify which exact brand of the cheeses were contaminated because there were a total of 60 that were produced in the cheese-making firms where the outbreak originated.
The second was that by the time the authorities found out where the outbreak had come from, the contaminated cheeses had already been consumed and the new batches in the cheesemakers’ premises were not infected.
“It is perhaps due to these two factors that this contamination was not in the media, even though all the data was public nothing was hidden,” said Fany Molin of the DGAL food agency.
Go public: Further illnesses may be prevented; others learn; citizens may not come with torches demanding change; and it’s the right thing to do.
Going public: Early disclosure of food risks for the benefit of public health
NEHA, Volume 79.7, Pages 8-14
Benjamin Chapman, Maria Sol Erdozaim, Douglas Powell
Often during an outbreak of foodborne illness, there are health officials who have data indicating that there is a risk prior to notifying the public. During the lag period between the first public health signal and some release of public information, there are decision makers who are weighing evidence with the impacts of going public. Multiple agencies and analysts have lamented that there is not a common playbook or decision tree for how public health agencies determine what information to release and when. Regularly, health authorities suggest that how and when public information is released is evaluated on a case-by-case basis without sharing the steps and criteria used to make decisions. Information provision on its own is not enough. Risk communication, to be effective and grounded in behavior theory, should provide control measure options for risk management decisions. There is no indication in the literature that consumers benefit from paternalistic protection decisions to guard against information overload. A review of the risk communication literature related to outbreaks, as well as case studies of actual incidents, are explored and a blueprint for health authorities to follow is provided.