Hundreds of U.S. bioterror lab mishaps cloaked in secrecy

Allison Young of USA Today reports that more than 1,100 laboratory incidents involving bacteria, viruses and toxins that pose significant or bioterror risks to people and agriculture were reported to federal regulators during 2008 through 2012, government reports obtained by USA TODAY show.

oops.britneyMore than half these incidents were serious enough that lab workers received medical evaluations or treatment, according to the reports. In five incidents, investigations confirmed that laboratory workers had been infected or sickened; all recovered.

In two other incidents, animals were inadvertently infected with contagious diseases that would have posed significant threats to livestock industries if they had spread. One case involved the infection of two animals with hog cholera, a dangerous virus eradicated from the USA in 1978. In another incident, a cow in a disease-free herd next to a research facility studying the bacteria that cause brucellosis, became infected due to practices that violated federal regulations, resulting in regulators suspending the research and ordering a $425,000 fine, records show.

But the names of the labs that had mishaps or made mistakes, as well as most information about all of the incidents, must be kept secret because of federal bioterrorism laws, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the labs and co-authored the annual lab incident reports with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“More than 200 incidents of loss or release of bioweapons agents from U.S. laboratories are reported each year. This works out to more than four per week,” said Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert at Rutgers university in New Jersey, who testified before Congress last month at a hearing about CDC’s lab mistakes.

The only thing unusual about the CDC’s recent anthrax and bird flu lab incidents, Ebright said, is that the public found out about them. “The 2014 CDC anthrax event became known to the public only because the number of persons requiring medical evaluation was too high to conceal,” he said.

CDC officials were unavailable for interviews and officials with the select agent program declined to provide additional information. The USDA said in a statement Friday that “all of the information is protected under the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.”

Such secrecy is a barrier to improving lab safety, said Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the UPMC Center for Health Security in Baltimore, an independent think tank that studies policy issues relating to biosecurity issues, epidemics and disasters.

doublesecretprobation“We need to move to something more like what they do in aviation, where you have no-fault reporting but the events are described so you get a better sense of what actually happened and how the system can be fixed,” said Gronvall, an immunologist by training and an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Gronvall notes that even with redundant systems in high-security labs, there have been lab incidents resulting in the spread of disease to people and animals outside the labs.

“People understand that mistakes will happen,” Gronvall said. “But you want it to be captured, you want it to be learned from, you want there to be a record of how it was dealt with. That’s something I think should happen with biosafety.”

The secrets of a salmonella outbreak; over 100 sick

There are now over 100 sick with salmonella in France linked to hamburgers, primarily school kids, so as in the U.S., questions are being raised about food safety standards and procedures for products purchased by the school lunch program. After a USA Today expose last year, the U.S. asked microbiologist Gary Acuff to lead a panel to review and improve school lunch purchases.

My friend, Albert Amgar, wrote a particularly incisive blog post about the culture of food safety secrecy in France. Amy translated and excerpts follow:

The food poisoning outbreak caused by Salmonella in ground beef patties has raised many questions.

Of course, communication has been, as usual, opaque, but now the school cafeteria’s contract for the hamburgers is itself classified top secret, according to a Nov. 6 article by Emmanuel Coupaye of Centre, the newspaper for Vienne.

This journalist is asking questions: What are the established purchasing criteria for ground meat in the middle schools and high schools? After contamination, the question is disturbing.

Apart from the contamination of hamburgers with salmonella, "What is more upsetting is the National Education’s current difficulty in providing accurate information about the selection of products offered in school cafeterias. Since Thursday (November 4 – aa), we’ve been looking for an answer to a simple question: What are the selected criteria used in sourcing ground meat for Poitiers’ middle schools and high schools? Many parents as well as cattle farmers were surprised to learn that the meat for the hamburger patties was supplied by a foreign producer."

On Thursday, the manager of the high school, contacted by our editorial staff saw no problem with providing us a copy of the contract. We only had to come by the school yesterday morning (Friday, Nov. 5). Our goal was to know what are the established criteria for sourcing ground meat (French, EU or other) and the quality threshold (dairy breed, meat breed, meat with a seal of quality). But then, yesterday morning, after a night of reflection, the answer was no.

"I cannot give you this document," stated the school principal.

By late afternoon, the rector stated that he "did not have any information to add." Too bad the Ministry of Education’s website still boasts, under the catering section, its dual requirement "to maintain nutritional quality" and "better inform parents” (especially on issues related to food safety – aa).

In conclusion, the only thing left for us to do is to seize it through the Committee on Access to Administrative Documents!

I wish a lot of fun to those who would like to access these documents. Indeed, in France, transparency is often emphasized, but as pointed out in a recent book (Corinne Maier, Chao France, Flammarion, 2010) glasnost is not a French word. By comparison, the U.S. Congress passed a law on the freedom of information that requires the administration to establish clear standards to determine what documents can be classified as confidential, secret or top-secret, allowing citizens the right to challenge these classifications in court.

To be continued …

Canadian Association of Journalists still exists, says CFIA wins secrecy award

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has won the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Code of Silence Award for 2008 for its dizzying efforts to stop the public from learning details of fatal failures in food safety.

"The judges were sick with awe at the intestinal fortitude the Canadian Food Inspection Agency gatekeepers have shown," said CAJ President Mary Agnes Welch. "It was clear that the CFIA’s guard dogs found something they can really sink their teeth into."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has delayed and extended, ad nauseam, requests related to the Listeria outbreak that killed 22 Canadians and triggered hundreds – perhaps thousands – of illnesses.

Requests filed for inspections records on the Toronto-area Maple Leaf plant at the centre of the outbreak took nine months to produce and communication records with the company are still embroiled in delays.

For one of the biggest public health issues to face Canada in recent years, details behind the cause of the outbreak, the apparent delay in warning Canadians and the agency’s handling of the aftermath remain filled with unanswered questions.

The ignominious Code of Silence Award, handed out Saturday night at the CAJ’s investigative journalism awards banquet, dishonours the country’s most secretive government, department or agency.