"This has got to be a joke” was my first thought when I received an e-mail from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene about a foodborne illness outbreak at the annual Food Safety Summit I attended April 8-10 in Baltimore.
The reporter in me took control. I called the Maryland officials to confirm that the notice was for real. There was no way I was going to click on the enclosed link for the investigation survey without checking first.
Irony of ironies — the message was legit.
The health department contact person told me a number of attendees had reported stomach and intestinal issues, aka nausea and diarrhea.
Before you begin crafting an outraged e-mail to me about not telling the health department who I work for, let me explain why I did not identify myself as a reporter.
The Packer has well-defined standards for reporting on foodborne illness outbreaks. Generally we don’t report about outbreaks unless there is a solid connection to a fresh produce item.
I knew the wide range of foods served at the Food Safety Summit, many with multiple ingredients, meant there couldn’t be a solid connection to any specific food during the initial investigation.
Thankfully I had not experienced any of the symptoms described by the Maryland health official.
However, my experiences covering food safety and foodborne outbreaks for The Packer have shown me how crucial it is for investigators to have as much information from as many people as possible as soon as possible when an outbreak is suspected. So I completed the survey.
I was impressed by its thoroughness. It asked whether Food Safety Summit attendees had consumed any of the foods or drinks available at continental breakfasts, buffet lunches, afternoon coffee breaks and evening receptions during the three-day event.
For those who answered yes to any of the food opportunities, the survey then provided a comprehensive list of foods and beverages served and asked respondents to indicate yes or no for each item — right down to the lemon wedges for the iced tea.
Yet, as impressive as the survey was, I found myself wondering how effective it or similar surveys could be.
Aside from the faults of human memory, the fact that the survey link and password was e-mailed to every one of more than 1,300 attendees and presenters seemed less than secure. The message did not include a request to keep the information or link and password confidential.
What was to stop anyone from forwarding the e-mail?
Sure enough, the next e-mail from the Maryland department said the survey had been discontinued because the link and password had been posted on the Web. About 400 people completed the survey before it was shut down, and 100 of them reported getting sick.
Five days later, on April 22, the Maryland department sent another e-mail. It had a new link to the survey and a new password. It also included a request that the link and password not be shared.
As of May 8 there haven’t been any updates from the Maryland or Baltimore health departments.
I am left with nagging questions, as an attendee and as a journalist:
- Why did it take a full week for the department to send out the initial notice and survey?
- Why wasn’t the initial survey constructed so that individual attendees had specific passwords to protect the integrity of the investigation?
- Why did it take five more days for another survey link to be set up, and why weren’t individual passwords used for it?
- How can the public rely on government agencies to determine the causes of foodborne illness outbreaks when basic security measures are not used during investigations?
I could also ask questions about how the food was served at the Food Safety Summit, which included attendees handling serving utensils at buffet tables and using bare hands to grab bread and condiments. Open bins of ice with scoops were available at every turn. Attendees repeatedly handled the scoops and tossed them back into the ice.
The Food Safety Summit provided an incredible amount of valuable information about best practices, how to comply with regulations and why regulations are important.
However, the irony of the foodborne illness outbreak will be the lingering take away for me.
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.