Food-Borne Illness: Is the Public in the Dark?

Legislator considers changes regarding outbreaks at restaurants in wake of Troubleshooter stories

A state legislator told the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters it might be time for a change after seeing our reports on what some call a lack of information shared about food-borne illness outbreaks at restaurants.

Imagine stopping by a restaurant you frequent and seeing a sign in the window saying it's closed by order of the health department, with no explanation, and nowhere to get one.

Several people have reached out to the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters with similar complaints and said the flow of information has to improve.

The Troubleshooters spoke with residents connected to two different food-borne illness cases in Connecticut, none of whom is satisfied with the way public health officials handled the incidents.

Kamran Niazi said he could not get answers from public health investigators last year when Yale-New Haven Hospital diagnosed him with salmonella hours after he ate at Oregano Joe's in Orange and became violently ill.

Niazi was hospitalized for almost a week, and health inspectors had the restaurant temporarily closed.

"What's the point of having a public health department that's not protecting the public's health and is actually hiding and withholding information from the public?" Niazi wondered.

Steve and Susan Herzog reached out after watching our reports on Niazi and said they came down with E. coli in the Willimantic area in late 2013.

The Herzogs learned the illness was most likely tied to salad they ate at a local restaurant, but the investigation was inconclusive.

Susan Herzog recovered after a long hospitalization and said "They really didn't know, at first if I would make it."

She had to retire early and Steve Herzog missed weeks of work, costing the couple thousands.

Steve Herzog wanted to recoup at least some of the money he lost, but when it came to getting any kind of information on the restaurant involved, investigators wouldn't share details.

"If you are going to get a food-borne illness, this is the worst state it could happen in," said Steve Herzog. "What my lawyer was looking for was their produce invoices from the month of December."

State epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Cartter points out most food-borne illness investigations are confidential by state law, and added that investigators learn about most outbreaks a week or two after they happen, so a news release would come too late.

The goal is often to learn from outbreaks and prevent them in the future.

“It's not until we receive reports from multiple people that we are able to identify an outbreak," Cartter said. "And there's a delay between the time that someone eats a contaminated food item, gets sick, sees a doctor, gets a lab test and we hear about it."

That wasn't the case for Niazi, who said he went to Yale-New Haven Hospital within hours of getting sick. He was soon told he had salmonella, and doctors said they had just seen another case similar to his.

Cartter could not discuss specific outbreaks, but pointed out that they are chronicled online in something called the Connecticut Epidemiologist newsletter, albeit months after the fact.

"Our investigations involving food-borne outbreaks are published. They are studies of morbidity and mortality," Cartter said."It takes a while to complete those reports, but they are all there for people who want to see them."

The Herzogs added that the reports are not easy to find and don't say where the outbreaks took place or what restaurants are involved.

“All of the pertinent information had been redacted; establishment A, establishment B," Steve Herzog said.

"It's reviewed and presents the information in a scientific way that can be understood by anyone who reads it, who's a public health professional or in medicine," Cartter said. "That's the purpose of that report. The purpose of that report is not for immediate public notification."

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters sat down with State Sen. Terry Gerratana, who chairs the state legislature's public health committee. She said after watching our earlier stories on the case of Kamran Niazi, it's perhaps time for the state to develop a better system for alerting to public to food-borne illnesses at restaurants.

“If there's more than one incident I think then it's reasonable to look at that and maybe we have to do something legislatively about that," Gerratana said. "To get some sort of notification."

Gerratana's committee does not have to look far to see how another state operates.

In New Bedford, Massachusetts, local and state health inspectors learned of a salmonella outbreak at a restaurant right after Christmas, had it shut down, and sent out a news release naming the restaurant.

“I did like what you shared with me about Massachusetts," Gerratana said.

Cartter insisted that when state or local health officials learn of a food-borne illness outbreak at a restaurant within two days of someone becoming ill, they will issue a press release.

Still, Steve Herzog questions whether the state is really sharing enough information about these situations.

“We're not looking to recoup as much as we are to change the laws, so, when this undoubtedly happens again, and it will to someone, they're not dealing with a life threatening disease and a broken system," he said.

The Connecticut Restaurant Association told the Troubleshooters it is “certainly open to discussing legislation involving more reporting of food-borne illnesses.”

The Troubleshooters and several other parties will attend a state Freedom of Information hearing Friday to urge the state to be more open with food-borne illness cases.

Oregano Joe's restaurant has not returned our calls for comment.

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