A couple of years ago Mrs. Spocko and I were doing some fine dining in the lovely North Beach section of San Francisco. This was a white tablecloth, soft-lighting restaurant so we expected something a bit better than our local taqueria. We both ordered green salads. When they arrived I started trying to break the land speed record for fastest fork to mouth. Mrs. Spocko is much more dignified. She noticed that there were several slimy black pieces of lettuce clinging to the green pieces. I looked down to my half finished salad and noticed the same.
We called over the waiter, who felt the need to stand up for the salad’s wholesomeness. He said, and I quote, “It comes in a bag.” as if that was the answer to why it should have been fine and no one on the kitchen staff was responsible. Maybe he worked for a Crazy Amy and was afraid of being fired or yelled at for taking it back. But ever since that dinner whenever Mrs. Spocko and I find something wrong with our own cooking and don’t want to take the blame for sloppy preparation we say, “It comes in a bag.”
Now imagine if one week after that dinner I got sick. Really sick. Not the one day “stomach flu”, but ongoing sickness. What if I was exploding from the north and south, with cramps, gas and severe fatigue? My muscles ached and I’ve got a low grade fever. On the bright side I have no appetite and I’m losing weight so I’ve got that going for me.
The doctor says, “The CDC says that your symptoms might be related to tainted food, I’ll need a fecal sample and a list of all the places you ate and the food you bought over the last 2 weeks.” I do that and I tell him about the “It comes in a bag” experience.
The results come back and the doctor says, “You have a parasite called cyclospora cayetanensis. There is an 80 percent chance that it came from that bagged lettuce.” Well that sucks, but at least I have an idea what the problem is. She says that there is an outbreak in Nebraska and Iowa and they have tracked down the source, but they aren’t telling anyone which restaurants carried it or what brand of bagged lettuce it was from. I’m incredulous, “Are you kidding me? They aren’t going to tell the public who sold this stuff?”
“Nope.” she says, “Not only that, but the Iowa Department of Public Health, whose motto is, ‘promoting and protecting the health of Iowans’ legally can’t tell you. They won’t tell you the name of the salad mixture, who sold it or which restaurants sold it.”
My response is, “You have got to be shitting me. I’ve been shitting myself for 5 weeks and I feel like crap. I don’t want my friends and family to go through this, I want everyone to know. What kind of messed up law is this? It’s almost like the ‘people’ whose health they are protecting are the companies that are selling the tainted food.”
I’ve been corresponding with Bob Glissmann, a writer for the Omaha World-Herald. He has done a very interesting series of articles on this outbreak. (Link to the most recent) and when I read that they wouldn’t be announcing the brand, I noted all the BS reasons they gave. He directed me to the IDPH’s statement.
IDPH has not released the name of the salad mixture brand, or locations where it was purchased or eaten because of confidentiality mandated by Iowa state law. Iowa Code Section 139A.3(2)’c’ requires IDPH to prevent the identification of any business involved in a disease outbreak, and authorizes release of the identity of a business to the public only ‘when the state epidemiologist or director of public health determines such a release of information is necessary for the protection of the public.’ Because the vast majority of illnesses occurred in mid-June and the limited shelf life of fresh produce, IDPH and DIA determined the implicated salad mix was no longer in the Iowa food supply chain. Thus, there is no ongoing threat to the public health which would require the identification of a particular brand, store, or restaurant where the salad mixture was available. In addition, these sites could not have taken any action to prevent contamination of the mixture since it came pre-packaged and ready-to-eat.
So it’s the law. Surely that law was designed to protect Iowa businesses and individuals, but they extended it to food from anywhere. I love how they make this assumption that since the specific bags are now gone from the food supply, it’s safe. Wow. Talk about optimistic! Of course that is assuming that the tainting won’t start up again. Why do they assume that?
I wonder if they put any pressure on the shipper to change their ways? “Okay, Mexican (or Peruvian) lettuce seller, you made hundreds sick, but we are doing you a solid by not telling anyone it was you. Now promise us it won’t happen again or we might reveal your name… or not.”
I’ve been writing on food safety issues for six years and I’ve always been astonished at just how powerful the food lobby is. And the sick part? Our regulations, as weak as they are are still better than the food safety laws in many Asian countries and some Latin American countries. If the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty passes, Chinese companies that operate out of Vietnam can force the US to ignore USDA and FDA testing and even SUE us for enforcing safe food laws. It’s enough to make you sick.
Image by the CDC, public domain