During the recent romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak, the CDC website page for E. Coli got 2 million page views. The month before that, it had gotten just 125,000.
That’s according to Elizabeth Greene of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who, at the recent International Association for Food Protection’s Annual Meeting, was part of a panel called “Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Transparency? Different Perspectives on Deciding When to Communicate during a Food Safety Outbreak.”
The website statistics are just one example of how the public is seeking out more information during recalls and outbreaks, and how they expect to find that information when they look for it.
The panel, which was moderated by Meagan Kay, Public Health – Seattle & King County, included:
- Sara Coleman, Health Canada – Communications and Public Affairs Branch
- Elizabeth Greene, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Thomas Gremillion, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America
- Aaron Lavallee, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
And while Greene, Lavallee and Coleman were cautious in their response to how much information should be shared with the public during recalls and when it should be shared, Gremillion advocated for nearly 100 percent transparency.
“From the consumer perspective, if I am sick, I don’t really care if the slaughter house [involved in an outbreak] goes out of business. I want that food to be safe,” Gremillion says. “From the consumer perspective, too much transparency is not a problem. First and foremost, this is about public health.”
The other panelists countered that there has to be some caution.
“When we look at our role as a regulatory agency, there is a responsibility to take into consideration what the impact that [our communications] are going to have,” Lavallee says. “It is a fine balance.”
Specifically, the agencies rely heavily on getting information from factory owners, and putting out certain information could damage that dynamic.
“When you have a willing participant on the other end, it makes it much easier,” he explains. “Just put yourself in the shoes of one of those plant owners. The natural direction of anybody would be to get defensive and clam up.”
Lavallee also shared the example of a small processor recently involved in a recall. It was the only processor of its type in the eastern part of the state, and there was concern that telling the public about an issue there would put it out of business.
Greene agrees that there are a lot of factors that go into when the agency decides to release information to the public, such as whether it’s an ongoing outbreak, if there is a clear action step for consumers, whether the item involved has a long shelf life, whether there have there been any deaths and whether or not misinformation is being circulated.
“There are certainly some things that we consider when making that decision. For example, will it change people’s food recall ability? Can the industry act on our advice, and will it affect those who must take action?” she says. “Another thing we look at it is will we have more information in a day or two that may allow us to go out with specific information that may be more helpful?”
Greene says the CDC is a public health agency, and its mission is to save lives and protect people.
“We are starting to communicate more often about outbreaks where we don’t have a clear action steps,” she says, “even if it’s not the kind of information that we like to provide.”
Coleman says Canada also is working to be more transparent, and she specifically talked about a recent E. coli outbreak involving flour. Health Canada made the decision to communicate about it early and often, even though it took several months for it to find the source of the outbreak.
But if they had waited, the response would have been, “Why didn’t they tell us this?” Coleman says.
Gremillion says he knows that it’s not a black and white issue.
“You can always add more on the side of disclosure. But yeah, it’s a give and take. I’m not advocating for a stream of consciousness,” he says. “I realize there are choices and lines that need to be drawn. But I think there’s some recent concrete examples where consumers could have used more information.”
Specifically, he points to a recent soy nut butter recall that involved contract manufacturers. Because some of the contracts were protected as confidential commercial information, some of the brands involved were not immediately released to the public.
He also says governmental agencies should always list where any products involved in a recall are sold.
“A recent story in Politico [showed] that there were some victims from that soy nut butter that really could have been helped,” Gremillion says. “To us, it’s outrageous that we can identify a food that’s making people sick, and the regulatory agencies can know where it was sold, and that information is not getting to consumers.”
However, Greene says that can create a false sense of security for consumers, who may think a recall doesn’t affect them if they don’t specifically shop at a store on the list.
In the end, it’s a balancing act.
“Some folks would probably say if we’re not posting this, we’re causing trust issues, and then on the other side, industry would say you’re causing panic,” Lavallee says. “But at the end of the day, we are a public health agency, and our mission is to prevent foodborne illness.”