Monday, December 09, 2019

Outbreak of Salmonella Poisoning from Contaminated Vegetables in Massachusetts But DPH Refuses to Release Data on Which Products are Involved and Where They Were Purchased

Despite an outbreak of vegetable-associated Salmonella poisoning linked to products sold at Massachusetts restaurants that has affected 90 Massachusetts residents and resulted in three deaths, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is refusing to release any information on the restaurants at which the patients ate or the exact products they consumed. The Department has revealed only that the outbreak is associated with "vegetable products" and that some of the patients reported having eaten vegetables at restaurants in the Commonwealth.

The Department of Public Health is not even telling the restaurant owners themselves that their products may have been implicated in the outbreak. There have been 90 confirmed and probable cases of Salmonella poisoning. According to DPH, the only thing that links all the cases is that they all reported eating vegetables. However, DPH has not released information on how many of the patients reported eating vegetables at restaurants and how many purchased their vegetables off the unregulated black market, such as the many "farmers' markets" that are held weekly in cities across the Commonwealth.

In response to the outbreak, the Department of Public Health issued emergency regulations that shut down all restaurants in Massachusetts for three months until the source of the outbreak could be identified. Of the 16 confirmed cases in which the patients were interviewed to determine what products they consumed, 14 of the 16 reported having purchased Romaine lettuce at farmers' markets. Only two of the patients denied having purchased vegetables from farmers' markets, although published studies have shown that patients in Massachusetts are reluctant to report that they frequent illicit farmers' markets because of the social stigma associated with that behavior.

A recent study released by CDC found that 100% of the patients whose stool samples were tested were found to have consumed a strain of Romaine lettuce that is not sold at restaurants, but only at farmer's markets and black market produce stands. Nevertheless, it is possible that one or two restaurant chains may have cut corners and purchased this contaminated strain of Romaine lettuce from shady farmers. The Department of Public Health, however, will not release to the public any information on what restaurant chains were reported as having been frequented by case patients who denied buying from farmers' markets.

Of the 16 confirmed cases, none were associated with the purchase of vegetables from restaurants. However, there are six probable cases who admitted to having purchased vegetables from restaurants; DPH has refused to release information on what restaurants those vegetables were purchased from or what the specific vegetables were.

At a hearing last week, the Massachusetts Lettuce Commission, which is in charge of ensuring the safety of the lettuce supply at restaurants in the Commonwealth, complained about the lack of information being shared with it by DPH. Several commissioners told a DPH staff panel that the Department refused to provide them with any information on what vegetable products were reported being purchased at restaurants in the state and at which restaurants they were purchased.

Fortunately, the Massachusetts Lettuce Commission was finally able to get DPH to enter into an agreement to release limited data on the vegetable products reported by case patients. However, the data will be released only to one person - the executive director of the Commission - and he will have to enter into a non-disclosure agreement, certifying that he will not share the information and under no circumstances will release it publicly, even if it becomes clear that a specific product at a specific restaurant is contaminated. In addition, the executive director of the Commission had to put up as collateral his David Ortiz, Bobby Orr, Tom Brady, and John Havlicek jerseys.

Notably, DPH was not being asked to release any personally identifiable information or any information protected by patient confidentiality laws. The only data being sought was aggregated, de-identified product information, not linked to any particular patients but aggregated over the population of case patients.

One piece of critical information that DPH refused to release was whether or not the six patients who reported consuming vegetables at restaurants had also eaten vegetables bought off the street. There is a suggestion that at least one of the patients who ate at a restaurant also ate vegetables that they purchased from an unnamed, makeshift corner farm stand, and it is possible that all six of the patients who reported having eaten vegetables at a restaurant also purchased from makeshift farm stands. Without that information, the Lettuce Commission is hard-pressed to figure out whether any of the products it regulates are involved and if so, where they are coming from and what specific lettuce strains are potentially contaminated.

In what appears to be a possible step forward, DPH has posted the first information it shared in months on some of the products reported being consumed by case patients. Here are some of the data:

First, although there were a total of 49 case patients interviewed, only 16 of these were confirmed cases and the other 33 were probably cases. Looking just at the confirmed cases, 14 of the 16 admitted to having eaten Romaine lettuce that was purchased at black market farm stands. There were only two patients who reported only eating vegetables from restaurants, but they purchased a non-lettuce product that is not regulated by the Commission. So none of the confirmed cases reported having purchased a lettuce product from a Massachusetts restaurant.

Second, there were six of the probable cases who reported having consumed Romaine lettuce from a Massachusetts restaurant.

Third, some of the products that were reported by patients included:
  • Dank Romaine
  • Dr. BLT
  • Sweet Leaf
  • Tossed Salad
  • Naked Salad
  • Wettuce
Despite the CDC's finding that a specific, contaminated strain of Romaine lettuce was detected in samples of 29 out of 29 case patients, the most recent communication from the DPH reports that the cause of the outbreak is "unknown." All that DPH is telling the public is that it is "vegetable-associated."

Moreover, the product summary information sheet for providers states that the cause of the outbreak has not been determined. This despite the fact that both the FDA and CDC have concluded that contaminated black market Romaine lettuce is the predominant, if not only, cause of the outbreak.

Due to an order by the Massachusetts Superior Court, all restaurants in Massachusetts will be allowed to re-open this Wednesday. However, on the same day, the Department of Public Health is expected to release regulations that will ban the sale of flavored Romaine lettuce as of next July. This is not expected to affected large chain restaurants because they sell a plethora of products. However, it is expected to put the state's specialized lettuce shops completely out of business.

The Rest of the Story

CORRECTION: I apologize but I got the story slightly wrong. The numbers are all correct; however, the outbreak is not Salmonella poisoning but acute respiratory failure and the implicated product is not vegetables but e-cigarettes, or vaping products. The contaminant identified in 29 of 29 samples tested by CDC is vitamin E acetate oil, which is a thickening agent that is used only in black market THC vape cartridges and perhaps some shoddy CBD oil cartridges, as well as possibly a small number of legal THC vape cartridges sold by dispensaries, although it is not clear if any Massachusetts products are involved.

It is inexplicable why the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has been so secretive about the products being used by outbreak cases, especially the confirmed cases. Not only does the Massachusetts Cannabis Commission need this information to determine whether any regulated THC vape products are involved, but the public needs this information to be able to make informed decisions about what products to avoid.

For example, the fact that 14 of the 16 confirmed outbreak cases who provided information on the products used reported having vaped black market THC cartridges is game-changing. These data point strongly towards the recognized vitamin E acetate oil adulteration of black market THC vape cartridges as being the predominant, if not only, cause of the outbreak. This information is hidden on the web site, and not reported in summaries of the data that DPH is providing, which combine probable and confirmed cases, which is problematic because many probable cases will turn out not to be actual confirmed cases.

This information casts serious doubt on the rationale behind the emergency order which closed down the state's vape shops, leading large numbers of former smokers to return to smoking. It also makes it inexcusable that the Department of Public Health is continuing to tell the public that it has no idea what is causing the outbreak and that DPH is doing absolutely nothing to try to curtail the outbreak by: (1) telling the public explicitly that black market THC vape cartridges should be avoided; and (2) identifying and shutting down the sources of black market THC vape carts being sold in the Commonwealth.

The entire point of an outbreak investigation is to identify the cause of the outbreak so that this information can be communicated to the public in order to avoid further cases. Despite having shut down hundreds of small businesses, some permanently, DPH has done literally nothing to actually curtail the outbreak. If anything, its actions have resulted in more cases than would have occurred if DPH had shared, honestly, the information that it did have available rather than hide the truth from the public.

In fact, it kind of has the appearance that the reason why DPH has been hiding this information is that it doesn't support its apparently pre-ordained conclusion that traditional e-cigarettes are causing respiratory disease.

It is unconscionable that in order to obtain critical data to help ensure the safety of the THC vape product supply, the Massachusetts Cannabis Commission has to enter into a non-disclosure agreement with DPH.

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