(Liz Klimas) Nearly 400 people have been sickened by a stomach bug and health officials following the trail of where it might have started are pointing fingers at prepackaged salads. But they’re not naming any names yet, which has some up in arms.
The outbreak of the rare parasite cyclospora has been reported in at least 15 states. Although health officials in Nebraska and Iowa say they’ve traced cases there to prepackaged salad, it’s still too early to say the search for the outbreak’s origin is over.
Officials haven’t revealed the company that packaged the salad or where it was sold, explaining only that most if not all of it wasn’t grown locally.
The lack of information has fueled concern from consumers and others who argue companies should be held accountable when outbreaks happen and customers need the information about where outbreaks came from to make smart food choices.
“If you want the free market to work properly, then you need to let people have the information they need to make informed decisions,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in class-action food-safety lawsuits.
Mark Hutson, who owns a Save-Mart grocery story in Lincoln, Nebraska, said the lack of specific brand information threatened to hurt all providers, including the good actors.
“I think there was so little information as to what was causing the problem, that people just weren’t sure what to do,” he said. “Frankly, we would prefer to have the names out there.”
Food-safety and consumer advocates too believe the agencies shouldn’t withhold the information.
“It’s not clear what the policy is, and at the very least they owe it to us to explain why they come down this way,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ food safety project. “I think many people wonder if this is all because of possible litigation.”
Although many are pushing for names linked to the outbreak to be released, one reason officials might be hesitant is because they still haven’t determined whether the cases of cyclospora in the different states are connected.
Iowa law allows public health officials to withhold the identities of any person or business affected by an outbreak. However, business names can be released to the public if the state epidemiologist or public health director determines that disclosing the information is needed to protect public safety.
As state and federal health authorities continue to track down the source of the parasite, there’s a new app being developed by researchers that could help protect consumers from such an outbreak in the first place. Not only that but the cradle-app combo for ordinary smartphones could also test for environmental toxins and conduct medical diagnostics.
The handheld biosensor was developed by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A series of lenses and filters in the cradle mirror those found in larger, more expensive laboratory devices. Together, the cradle and app transform a smartphone into a tool that can detect toxins and bacteria, spot water contamination and identify allergens in food.