By Grant Schulte and Mary Clare Jalonick
The Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. — A food-safety inspector said Wednesday that most, if not all, of the prepackaged salad mix that sickened hundreds of people in Iowa and Nebraska wasn’t grown in either state.
Iowa Food and Consumer Safety Bureau chief Steven Mandernach said at least 80 percent of the vegetables were grown and processed outside both states’ jurisdictions. Mandernach said officials haven’t confirmed the origins of 20 percent and may never know because victims can’t always remember what they ate.
Officials have said the salad was infected with cyclospora, a rare parasite that causes a lengthy gastrointestinal illness. Outbreaks have been reported in 15 states, although it’s not clear whether they’re 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.
Mandernach said there is no immediate threat, so his office is not required to release information about where the product came from. He said state officials believe the affected salad has already spoiled and is no longer in the supply chain.
Food-safety and consumer advocates say 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.”
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in class-action food-safety lawsuits, said withholding the information can create general fears that damage the reputation of good actors in food production.
Marler said consumers should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to shop and grocery stores or eat at restaurants where tainted produce was sold. Some states also are slow to interview infected people, he said, which reduces the chances that they remember where they ate.
“If you want the free market to work properly, then you need to let people have the information they need to make informed decisions,” he said.
The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it didn’t have enough information to name a possible source of the outbreak. In the past, the agencies have at times declined to ever name a source of an outbreak, referring to “Restaurant A” or using vague terms.