Going public: Maine wants to limit what you can know about disease outbreaks

Joe Lawlor of the Portland Press Herald reports the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is proposing a rule change that would allow it to more easily withhold information on the locations of outbreaks of communicable diseases like measles, chicken pox and pertussis.

public-accountabilityA rule is the same as a regulation, would have legal force behind it and implements an agency’s interpretation of a law.

Contacted Wednesday, CDC spokesman John Martins said the agency does not comment on pending rule changes.

The proposal comes a year after the Portland Press Herald filed a lawsuit in July 2015, when the Maine CDC denied the newspaper’s request for information about chicken pox outbreaks at three schools and a day-care facility during the 2014-15 school year. An outbreak is defined by the Maine CDC as a place where there are three or more cases of an infectious disease.

In a settlement agreement, the information was released to the Press Herald in October 2015, and the newspaper published the outbreak locations.

There were 84 chicken pox cases at Maine schools in 2014-15. Of those cases, 57 affected unvaccinated or undervaccinated children, according to CDC data.

In another case where public health advocates criticized the CDC for being unnecessarily secretive, the agency refused in 2014 to name the restaurant where a hepatitis A outbreak had occurred.

The Maine agency’s policy runs counter to recommendations by public health experts, who say that knowing where outbreaks occur is beneficial to the public health because some people – including infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems – are more susceptible to communicable diseases.

The CDC argued when denying the newspaper’s request last year that releasing the school names could jeopardize personal privacy because “indirect information” about the outbreaks could result in the public being able to identify people who had fallen ill.

But Sigmund Schutz, the Press Herald’s attorney, countered that the newspaper was not requesting personal information, and state law did not permit the CDC to deny the request.

Schutz said the new rule, if adopted, also would be in conflict with state open records laws, which do not give the agency latitude to deny requests based on unlikely scenarios that an individual could be identified.

Schutz said the newspaper will be lodging official comments objecting to the proposed rule. The public comment period ends Monday.


252 sick: Noro cruise docks in Maine

Federal health officials say the first cruise ship to dock in Portland, Maine, this season is under surveillance for norovirus.

chapman.vomitThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 27 percent of the passengers aboard the Balmoral — operated by the Fred Olsen Cruises — have gotten sick since the cruise began April 16.

The ship and all aboard have since left Portland, according to police Lieutenant Robert Doherty.

The CDC reports that 252 of the 919 passengers on the Balmoral have fallen ill, as well as eight crew members.

Fred Olsen Cruises did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

So far this year, there have been 10 outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships, according to the CDC.

Compliace with modern food safety regulations challenging for traditional Amish deli

Maine’s NPR News Source reports that an Amish deli in Unity that recently attracted national attention for both its meats and its owner’s high profile background as a chef may soon close. Matthew Secich, who runs Charcuterie, told the Bangor Daily News this week that food safety regulations are too overwhelming.

UNITY,  ME-  January 13: Matt Secich hangs sausages on a bar to dry at his Charcuterie shop in Unity on Wednesday, January 13, 2016. (Photo by David Leaming/Staff Photographer)

UNITY, ME- January 13: Matt Secich hangs sausages on a bar to dry at his Charcuterie shop in Unity on Wednesday, January 13, 2016. (Photo by David Leaming/Staff Photographer)

The handmade meats that Matthew Secich makes at Charcuterie struck a chord with customers when he opened late last year…and so did his personal story. He told MPBN in January about his background working at renowned restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago.

“…. it was a wild tale of chasing the — I guess you could call it the four-star holy grail of the cuisine world and traveled all over the country, working at various great restaurants, working for great chefs, hoping to one day be great.”

Secich abandoned that career for a simpler life, ultimately adopting the Amish faith and settling in Unity with his family. But as business grew when he opened Charcuterie’s doors, so too did the associated paperwork. MPBN was unable to reach Secich for comment for this story. But earlier this week he told the Bangor Daily News that he’s considering closing his deli because of what he says are overly burdensome food safety regulations.

John Bott is a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. He says one point of concern is the ice house Secich uses instead of a refrigerator. Amish shun electricity.

“You have to keep meats at a required 41-degree-Fahrenheit temperature, which is relatively easy to obtain using modern technology, but with an ice house, it could present some challenges.”

Bott says other states with Amish businesses don’t allow ice houses, though the Department is open to Secich keeping his if they can determine it’s safe. Another issue is a federal requirement to create what’s called a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plan. It’s an operating plan that lays out strict protocols to minimize food safety hazards. And to comply, it takes mountains of paperwork, says Andre Bonneau of the Sausage Kitchen in Lisbon Falls.


What about the epi? Tests don’t link E. coli that killed child to county fair in Maine

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says the strain of E. coli that sickened two children in October, killing one, can’t be linked to the Oxford County Fair.

ekka.petting.zooState health officials sent samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those tests came back inconclusive.

“While we know the two children were infected by the same molecular strain of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, that same strain was not found in any of the samples that we tested here in Maine, or in the samples we sent to the U.S. CDC,” Maine’s state epidemiologist Dr. Siiri Bennett, said.

Bennett said the majority of E. coli cases that are investigated end with an undetermined cause.

The families of the two children thought they contracted the illness from the petting zoo at the fair.

Twenty-month-old Colton Guay of Poland died of E.coli. Seventeen-month-old Myles Herschaft of Auburn recovered after treatment at Maine Medical Center.

Officials said four samples collected from the Oxford County Fairgrounds tested negative for E. coli at a state lab, and one sample from animal pens tested positive for the presence of STEC. The Maine CDC said lab tests from the U.S. CDC confirmed that the sample that tested positive for the presence of STEC did not match the strain that caused the children’s illness.

Keeping animal event goers safe takes vigilance

Two weeks ago 20-month old Colton James-Brian Guay tragically died from an E. coli O111 illness he picked up from a Maine fair petting zoo. Another child who visited the same event, Myles Herschaft, is still recovering from HUS.

Reading about these illnesses and thinking about my kids creates a pit in my stomach. The seriousness of the tragedy and how something like this might happen shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who works with food – farmers, processors, food handlers (commercial or domestic) – or the folks who run petting zoos and animal events.ekka_petting_zoo(3)

These tragedies happen often, but it’s not enough to just understand why; the science of pathogen transfer in animal contact events is out there. We’ve published on behaviors and best practices. Petting zoo operators should be watching this case closely and evaluating whether their current strategies would have avoided the outbreak. Changes might mean adjusting a process, increased training, testing and better communication of risks to patrons.

According to Time Warner Cable News, the NC State Fair organizers are focused on controlling zoonotic diseases at animal events.

“For many people, the fair is the only opportunity they may have to come see a cow or a pig or a mule, and so we want to make sure they get that experience. But we want everybody to understand that things like washing your hands and keeping your distance are great little steps that you can take and keep everybody healthy,” said N.C. State Fair spokesman Brian Long.

An E. coli outbreak at the 2011 State Fair caused 25 people to get sick and a year later, officials added barriers between livestock and fairgoers.

“Just to create more separation between humans and animals, you know animals are capable of transmitting bacteria to humans, and vice-versa. We want to keep the animals healthy. We want to keep the people healthy,” said Long.

Keeping folks and food separate from animals is a good strategy. Handwashing matters, but so does cleaning/sanitation of rails, floors and hand-contact surfaces.

At the root of a good food safety culture is recognition by everyone that it’s really important that things go right all the time. The stakes are too high if they don’t: kids end up in hospital or worse.

E. coli O111 felled two toddlers at Maine fair

State health officials said this afternoon that two toddlers who fell ill with an E. coli infection had the same strain of the dangerous bacteria.

Colton-Guay“The strain and molecular typing from each patient was identical, making it highly likely that the cases acquired the illness from same source,” said Dr. Siiri Bennett, the state epidemiologist for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “We cannot say with certainty what that common exposure might have been.”

The strain, known as O111, is one of many strains that can be responsible for an illness” such hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a particular strain of E. coli.

One of the toddlers, 20-month-old Colton James-Brian Guay, died this week, while another, Myles Herschaft, remained in fair condition this afternoon at Maine Medical Center. Myles, 17 months, of Auburn, also suffered from hemolytic uremic syndrome.

The state is still investigating the source of the E. coli infection, although the families of the toddlers have publicly said that they both visited the petting zoo at the Oxford County Fair in late September.

Handwashing is never enough: Maine man says 20-month-old son died of E. coli linked to petting fair

A man from the town of Poland says his 20-month-old son died of an illness caused by E. coli and that the child may have come in contact with it while visiting a petting zoo at the Oxford County Fair in mid-September.

Colton-GuayThe toddler is believed to be one of two young children who visited the fair’s petting zoo around the same time and were hospitalized with symptoms of E. coli. The father made the announcement on Facebook, saying he was doing so to warn other parents about the dangers of letting small children pet farm animals.

State health officials have confirmed they are investigating two E. coli cases, but they have not confirmed that anyone has died or named either of the people affected.

However, Victor Herschaft of Auburn posted a message on his Facebook page Tuesday asking that friends and family share the message about his son, Myles, who was at Maine Medical Center undergoing treatment for E. coli.

A nursing supervisor said Myles was in fair condition Tuesday night.

“This (E. coli) is what Myles contracted and I hope no one else is sick or gets sick. If your child has symptoms of an illness please don’t take it lightly and please get your children checked out,” Herschaft wrote. “Myles is still battling this HUS (hemolytic uremic syndrome).”

Herschaft said his son and the other boy went to the same petting zoo around the same time. They were admitted to the hospital within 6 hours of each other, he said.

ekka.petting.zoo.aug.12State health officials say there is only one way of preventing the spread of E. coli after touching farm animals: washing hands throughly with soap and water or using some type of hand sanitizer.


Handwashing is never enough, and we have documented numerous cases of shiga-toxin producing E. coli linked to animal exhibits that involve aerosolization of E. coli or cross-contamination.

He’s baaaaack: DeCoster to buy Maine egg producer

A farm executive who pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination in front of a congressional committee investigating an Iowa salmonella outbreak is the same person who signed a new lease on Maine’s largest egg farm last month.

decosterThe Maine Department of Environmental Protection is considering a request by a Land O’Lakes subsidiary to transfer active permits to Hillandale Farms, which was involved with Jack DeCoster (right, pretty much as shown) in the Iowa salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,900 people in 2010, the Sun Journal reported.

Hillendale, an egg producer headquartered in Pennsylvania, signed a lease to operate the farms on July 8. But the properties continue to be owned by DeCoster’s corporate entities, the newspaper said.

A University of Maine veterinarian who sits on a salmonella risk reduction team for the state says Moark, a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, had been “terrific” to work with. She hopes for the same with Hillandale.

“We are vitally interested in the health of Maine people (and) we want our state to have a poultry industry as well,” said Anne Lichtenwalner, director of UMaine’s Animal Health Lab. “We want transparency and we want collaboration, and I think that they are walking into a positive situation. One hopes that they embrace that.”

Moark signed its lease over to Hillandale Farms Conn LLC on July 8. That agreement was signed by Hillandale President Orland Bethel, who in 2010 pleaded the Fifth in front of the Congressional Energy and Commerce Committee when he and DeCoster were asked to testify about the salmonella outbreak.

DeCoster’s company managed Hillandale’s Alden, Iowa, farm.

Meats are impounded as Maine chefs play with high-risk processes

Food porn: Portland’s restaurants are on the cutting edge of the culinary renaissance in Maine, where locally sourced ingredients and inventive dishes are prized by award-winning chefs and consumers.

celebrity.chefs_-300x225But efforts by health inspectors to bring local restaurants into compliance with federal regulations and reduce the risks of a potentially dangerous foodborne illness outbreak is splashing cold water on the sizzling creativity of many area chefs – at least temporarily.

In recent months, hundreds of pounds of meat have been embargoed by health officials and are waiting in cold storage until restaurants can prove the food is safe. Several restaurants have been ordered to stop vacuum-sealing their meats, cooking sous vide dishes and offering some types of house-cured meats until they develop special hazard plans and in some cases get formal variances from the Maine Food Code.

“These are high-risk processes,” said Michael Russell, who oversees Portland’s restaurant inspection program. “In Portland, we noticed a growth in specialized processing two years ago and a significant increase in the number of establishments using these practices within the past year.”

The city’s crackdown has caught many restaurants off-guard, and there is no clear process for getting plans and variances from the state food code.

“It’s been an open secret that all of the best restaurants in Portland have been using techniques that are not approved by the FDA without variance and (special) plans,” said Brendan Murray, the head chef at Duckfat. “There is a huge amount of talent and dedication to serving the best food in the city. The level is rising rapidly and that’s a good thing.”

But do chefs know food safety?

Restaurants are required to develop special plans – called Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points plans – for nearly 20 advanced food preparations, including vacuum-sealing, also known as reduced oxygen packaging, of raw and cooked meats on site, according to documents from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Nine of those preparations, including pickling, curing meats and growing bean sprouts on site, also require a formal variation from the food code.

At the same time, efforts to increase the frequency and quality of Portland’s restaurant inspection program have led to cleaner, safer kitchens and more knowledgeable kitchen staffs, according to city officials and restaurant owners.

Since 2012, when the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram published a series of investigative reports about the city’s troubled restaurant inspection program, Portland has more than doubled the size of its inspection staff, visited restaurants more frequently and posted inspection reports online.

The paper revealed that many restaurants hadn’t been inspected for years and that, when the city hired its first health inspector in 2011, 19 out of the first 23 restaurants inspected failed – a failure rate of 82.6 percent. Since then, the failure rate has steadily improved. It was 45.5 percent in 2012 (40 out of 88 restaurants), 10.5 percent in 2013 (33 of 314) and just 6.4 percent in 2014 (31 of 482).

Restaurant owners and city officials say that’s happened because everyone is becoming more familiar with the standards.

Public health always gets hit first: Maine CDC missing top hepatitis expert for recent case

When the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention decided last week how to respond to a potential hepatitis A exposure at a Cumberland County restaurant, it did so without its top hepatitis coordinator and two leading epidemiologists, positions that have been vacant for months.

public.healthThe state’s handling of that case has drawn criticism from public health leaders who say the state should have named the restaurant to alert diners who may have been exposed to the virus during the weeks when the worker served food there.

The Maine CDC is operating without a full staff trained to deal with such infectious diseases. And while the department grapples with concerns over Ebola and the approaching flu season, 14 of its roughly 50 public health nurse positions remain vacant – more than 25 percent of the workforce. Public health nurses are front-line workers who run vaccination clinics and respond to outbreaks.

“Our public health infrastructure is woefully inadequate,” said MaryAnne Turowski, legislative and politics director for the Maine State Employees Association, the union that represents public health nurses. The state is “not prepared for an infectious disease outbreak,” she said.