Going public: E. coli secrecy must end

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.

communicationOn 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.

communication.context.13Unfortunately, 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.

Dough used in dessert fingered in Pizza Ranch outbreak

The source of an outbreak at the aptly-named Pizza Ranch is a mystery. But it appears to be linked to skillet dough used in some desserts.

Dough and E. coli O157 have been a pair in the past – raw prepackaged Nestle cookie dough caused 72 illnesses in 2009. Flour was thought to be the source.ls

The Des Moines Register, based on initial reporting by Food Poisoning Bulletin, quotes Brittany Behm,  a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Behm says the outbreak stretches back to December and includes 13 cases.

Nine of the people said they recently had eaten at Pizza Ranches, she said. Two children, in Kansas and Nebraska, suffered kidney failure and had to be hospitalized. They have since recovered, Behm said. None of the patients died.

David Werning, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, said Iowa officials picked up samples from Pizza Ranch restaurants in Denison and Sergeant Bluff, then forwarded them to federal investigators. No E. coli bacteria were found in those samples, he said.

Pizza Ranch released a statement Wednesday morning from its Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Achterhoff:

“Since late January, we have been assisting public health officials who are investigating 13 cases of illness attributed to a specific strain of E. coli O157 bacteria. Nine of the affected individuals reported having eaten at nine different Pizza Ranches in seven states. There are also individuals multiple states away from the nearest Pizza Ranch that reported not eating at Pizza Ranch that have the same strain of E. coli O157, though health investigators have not been able to pinpoint how they contracted the strain. The most recent reported illness related to this outbreak reported eating at one of our locations on January 30, 2016. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told us that it believes the outbreak is concluded.

“We removed our Skillet Dough mix immediately from use in response to information suggesting that this product was a possible common factor in the illnesses and subsequently expanded this product withdrawal to include our Original Dough mix.

“The fact pattern shows that the source of bacteria originated from an outside supplier rather than at our restaurants. Several states collected products from Pizza Ranch restaurant locations to test for the presence of E.coli O157 though it was not found in any products tested. Pizza Ranch independently ran over 40 tests on different products to test for the presence of E. coli O157 and it was not found in any products tested. We provided public health investigators with a list of all of our ingredients as well as contact information for our ingredient suppliers. We also contacted the supplier of our dough mixes regarding this issue with the request that they cooperate with state and federal health officials.

“In addition, we instructed all Pizza Ranch locations to complete a special, precautionary cleaning of all surfaces and equipment used in dough preparation or service. Our franchisees and their team members responded with professionalism and great attention to detail. As a result, we continue to have absolute confidence in the quality and wholesomeness of every item we serve. All Pizza Ranch locations are open and serving their full menu.”

Blaming suppliers for this seems odd. Pathogens come into restaurants all the time. Limiting cross contamination and ensuring that cooking methods (like how they prepare the dessert pizza) are things Pizza Ranch needs to control.