This week brought news of yet another nationwide Salmonella outbreak from a source not yet identified by government regulators. The last time we had a nationwide Salmonella outbreak for an extended period of time without identification of a definitive source the federal government initially singled out tomatoes imported from Mexico (a huge array of products). In that case, the government was wrong and wreaked financial havoc on many farmers and businesses.
So far, in the current outbreak, nothing more specific than “poultry, eggs and cheese” have been identified as possible sources. Last year’s outbreak involved Salmonella Saintpaul whereas the current outbreak is Salmonella Typhimurium, which is more commonly associated with poultry, eggs and cheese, but could come from almost anything.
That a source has yet to be identified to the media doesn’t mean that state and federal officials aren’t zeroing in on possible sources. Restaurant owners, retailers and food manufacturers should be ready for the regulators when they come knocking.
In the past, I’ve had clients who were worked over aggressively by regulators (especially federal officials) who were investigating a large, nationwide outbreak with an uncertain cause. These officials face enormous pressure from those in Washington and from the public. Federal officials can make demands that threaten an entire business. They can demand credit card receipts, contact information for customers, personal employee information, shutdown of the business and more. Noncompliance might mean the officials will go to the press and advertise that the business is a target of the investigation. Unlike local health officials, who are usually vested in the well-being of local food producers under their jurisdiction, federal officials may care only about the investigation and nothing else.
Any food business should implement its crisis response team the minute it suspects it could be targeted in an investigation like the one that is currently ongoing. Specialists in food safety and foodborne illness investigations, genetic microbiologists, public relations experts, accountants, quality assurance personnel, purchasing personnel and lawyers should be lined up and ready to go. Events may unfold quickly for your business (over the course of a day or even a morning). Everything needs to be done at that moment to assist a business in navigating what may appear to be an impossible crisis.