The Des Moines Register Editorial Board writes that last December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with other health agencies around the nation, allegedly detected a spike in E. coli food-poisoning cases in people who had eaten at Pizza Ranch restaurants.
On Jan. 31, Richard Simmons Jr. of Kansas took his family, including his 7-year-old daughter, to the Pizza Ranch in Emporia, Kan. Simmons says his daughter ate food from the restaurant’s buffet, including chicken, salad and dessert pizza. A few days later, the girl fell ill, experiencing stomach cramps and diarrhea. After testing positive for E. coli, she was hospitalized in Wichita on Feb. 12, where she placed in the intensive-care unit care after her kidneys failed. She remained hospitalized for two weeks.
The CDC later concluded Simmons’ daughter was one of 13 individuals believed to have been sickened by food from Pizza Ranch outlets in several states. Still, the CDC said nothing to the public about Pizza Ranch being the source of contaminated food. In fact, it wasn’t until The Des Moines Register contacted the federal agency on March 16, asking about the matter, that the CDC acknowledged the contaminated food had come from Pizza Ranch.
The CDC says its policy is to identify the providers of contaminated food only when “we perceive there are actions people can take to protect themselves.” In this case, a spokeswoman said, the restaurant chain stopped using the product suspected to be the cause of the illnesses, curtailing the outbreak. There was nothing else consumers could do at that point to avoid illnesses, she said.
The Iowa Department of Public Health, which was aware of the outbreak, took a similar stance. Even last week, Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the department’s medical director, refused to discuss the business involved in the outbreak with a Register reporter. She said the department’s investigations remain confidential unless the department believes disclosure is necessary to protect the public health.
This is not the first time this has happened. Last fall, more than 50 people were sickened by cooked taco meat that was served to the staff at Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School. The cooked meat was purchased from a grocery store shortly before it was served as part of a staff luncheon for the school. State officials said the food was likely tainted during preparation at the store since the bacteria wouldn’t have had enough time to grow between the time the meat was purchased and the time it was served.
Unfortunately, county and state health officials chose not to disclose the name of the store that provided the meat. Thanks to a state law that was written not to protect the public health but to protect Iowa business and industry, Iowa’s public health reports on food-poisoning cases must be written in a manner that doesn’t identify the business believed to be at fault. The law goes on to say that the identity of the business may be shared with the public only when the state epidemiologist or the director of public health “determines such a release of information (is) necessary for the protection of the health of the public.”
The public deserves to know who is responsible for serving food than can seriously injure, or even kill, consumers. They also deserve to know what our “public health” officials are up to, and passing laws that specifically muzzle these officials and require them to remain silent about the source of contaminated food can’t possibly be in the public interest.