National: Food Safety Jitters

Is it just us or has this been a banner year for insane food-safety stories? First there was that gigantic meat recall, then the gigantic salmonella mystery, then just last week a Chicago man sued a restaurant where he claims he acquired a nine-food tapeworm in 2006. Also, Canada is in the middle of a deadly food poisoning outbreak.

Now comes news from the Tulsa World that one person has died and at least another 11 — and possibly as many as 20 — were apparently infected with E. coli bacteria after eating at a “local restaurant” in Locust Grove (Mayes County), Oklahoma.

It is rather amazing that the newspaper shied away from naming the restaurant, or explaining its reason for omitting the name. Though in the wake of the reporting on that that salmonella scare, maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. In that incident, federal authorities took months to determine that the culprit in the scare was not tomatoes, but rather serrano and jalepeno peppers imported from Mexico. They only uncovered the truth after Minnesota scientists put them on the scent. Meanwhile, tomato growers lost around a quarter-billion dollars.

The tomato industry will survive that scare, but unless it is part of a huge chain, one restaurant in one small town in Oklahoma will probably not survive the death of a patron. So it’s understandable that either Mayes County health officials or the World’s editorial board withheld the name, pending confirmation of the infection source.

Isn’t it scary that you could be put at risk of a serious illness to save the reputation of a business? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be unfair for a restaurant to be associated with a deadly E. coli outbreak if it is later cleared? Unfortunately, there seems to be no universally good way to handle a health threat such as this.

It seems, however, that a good rule of thumb for public health officials would be to provide as much information as possible, as early as possible, occasionally omitting a detail that may be incriminating. For example, if health officials had reported earlier in the week that a trend may be afoot, perhaps that one fatal case would have avoided dining out. Of course, it may have taken all week to identify the trend.

In the end, restaurant patrons just have to accept that there will always be some small risk in having others cook for them. Risks can be reduced by ordering cooked food over raw and checking out health inspection scores, but they can never be fully eliminated.

One dead, 11 sickened in possible E. coli outbreak [Tulsa World]
Canadian Officials Link 4th Death to Food-Poisoning Outbreak [Bloomberg]
Food Safety [USDA]

[Photo: Via Meepocity/flickr]

National: Food Safety Jitters