Every day, the website for the Orange County Health Care Agency's (HCA) Food Protection Program is updated with restaurant closures in what amounts to a digital version of Elizabethan-era stocks. Listed are the myriad reasons why a particular place didn't pass muster for the agency's inspectors, and reading through the reports offers a fascinating glimpse into the minds of modern-day food police, who seem less concerned about protecting the public from dirty restaurants and more obsessed with filling up as much of their arbitrary checklist as possible.
This summer, for instance, a Baskin-Robbins in Santa Ana was dinged because employees who handled food didn't carry a food-handler card, and a Pakistani restaurant was written up because "the sanitizer concentration in the wiping-cloth container" was too high, whatever the hell that means; last year, a Tommy's in Westminster got in trouble because "closed employee beverages were observed on the preparation table located next to the three-compartment sink"—i.e., workers were sipping soda on the clock. Call the feds, Ma!
Violating restaurants are not only posted online for public shaming, but the HCA also distributes a list to The Orange County Register, which publishes the names and addresses of the scofflaws weekly. The HCA also posts statewide food-recall alerts and offers guides on how to cook items properly, as well as other helpful hints, all in the name of transparency and public health.
And it's all a sanctimonious crock.
Sometime in April, nine customers at an Orange County restaurant got sick after eating lettuce laced with Escherichia coli, the deadly, dreaded bacterium better known as E. coli. The lettuce came from Amazing Coachella Inc. of Coachella, and their poisoned product also struck eaters in Canada, where the outbreak was a national story. The OC restaurant was the only other culprit; it closed for a couple of days, then opened, and that was that.
The name of the eatery? The HCA never revealed it to the public when the outbreak occurred, and it doesn't want you to know about it—now or ever. When you have local health officials who think proclaiming to the world that restaurant employees drinking soda in the workplace is more important than announcing an E. coli outbreak, the stench is ranker than a bag of onions left next to a water heater.
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The E. coli cover-up was first broken in July by Food Safety News, an online news agency run by the Seattle-based law firm of Marler Clark, which specializes in representing victims of food poisoning. It followed up on Aug. 1 with a story titled "Restaurant in E. coli Outbreak Gets Cover From OC Health," which featured HCA spokesperson Deanne Thompson saying that releasing the name of the offending restaurant would "not serve a useful purpose."
"That's a major inconsistency," says Food Safety News editor in chief Dan Flynn, who reported the story. "When you have nine cases of E. coli, that is a major incident. In my mind, it's no different than if you would accept a police department saying nine people got wounded, but since no one got killed, it's not going to say any more about it."
Flynn found out about the OC outbreak only by happenstance. In May, reports from Canada emerged that 18 people in Miramichi, New Brunswick, had come down with E. coli. An investigation by Canadian health officials determined the afflicted had eaten lettuce from a local restaurant and that the contaminated roughage came from Amazing Coachella. When those officials ran the particular E. coli strain through the Center for Disease Control's PULSENET (a network of laboratories that keeps a shared database of the biological markers of foodborne, disease-carrying bacteria), they discovered the same strain had infected nine people in Orange County.
The New Brunswick chief medical officer of health quickly announced the outbreak to the Canadian public as well as the name of the restaurant affected (Jungle Jim's Eatery), as did Canada's Department of Health. On June 29, the latter announced it had discovered the culprit—lettuce from Amazing Coachella—and that the same strain hit California. The Canadians alerted the California Health Department, even letting it know in private the name of the restaurant—but the California Department of Public Health (DPH) kept the information to itself. It wasn't until July, when Flynn called after connecting the binational dots, that DPH officials finally admitted the outbreak had spread to Orange County, telling the reporter that "Orange County [HCA] promised the restaurant wouldn't be named."
Flynn called the HCA for comment; Thompson said the restaurant wasn't named because it voluntarily closed and cooperated fully with the investigation. He says he was shocked by the HCA's recalcitrance.
"Three-quarters of local health departments in California release this kind of information routinely and quickly," he says. "The ones that don't [do it] get into logic that doesn't make a lot of sense. If I understand what [Deanne] said between the lines, this is probably a local single-ownership restaurant that wasn't a chain, so it was a local guy who cooperated with them in the investigation. That way, they can say there isn't any health threat, and there's no benefit in releasing the name."
Food and Safety News is undeterred; last week, it filed a public-records request with HCA, demanding "the names and locations of any restaurant establishments associated with the outbreak" and "any summary health-department reports."
"We have always argued there could well be people who ate at that restaurant that got sick—maybe they were traveling in Arizona, got the symptoms, but since nothing else was going on, their doctor never submitted their stool sample [to health officials]," Flynn says. "If they would read somewhere there was an outbreak at a restaurant they were at, they would realize they [had contracted E. coli] and receive the proper medical help."
It's not as though the HCA hasn't previously dealt with E. coli cases. In 2007, 14 people contracted the pathogen after eating at a Souplantation in Foothill Ranch. Then, health officials not only announced the name of the restaurant almost immediately after realizing its role, but it also continued to alert the public via press releases and interviews with the media.
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For the April 2012 cases, on the other hand, the only outreach HCA did was a confidential April 25 memo obtained by the Weekly issued to Orange County health-care providers warning, "We recently received an increase in reports of E. coli" and asking providers to send any "suspect or confirmed cases" to them.
HCA officials did not return the Weekly's request for comment.
This article appeared in print as "A Veil of Vomit: Why is the OC Health Care Agency still covering up an April outbreak of E. coli at a local restaurant?"