Restaurant A: How Bill Marler Tied Taco Bell to Salmonella Outbreaks

A recent outbreak sickened 68 people, but the CDC refused to make the name of the source of the contaminated food available to the public.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) handling of a recent investigation into a salmonella outbreak that sickened 68 people in 10 states -- sending more than 20 to the hospital -- had all the elements of a B-grade spy movie. The CDC identified the source of the contaminated food but refused to make the name public, instead calling it Restaurant Chain A, and saying only that it was a Mexican chain. It could have been any one of six such chains that operated in the affected states.

That seemed like odd behavior from an agency whose responsibility is to save lives, protect Americans, and save money through prevention. Although no one died in this outbreak, which came to light last fall, salmonella is frequently fatal, so outing the culprit could have saved lives. Revealing the identity of the mysterious Restaurant Chain A would have allowed customers to protect themselves by avoiding the place, if they chose. And a little negative publicity might have been just what was needed to convince those in charge of the company to clean up their act, perhaps preventing future outbreaks.

But the CDC kept the restaurant's identity under wraps.

This did not sit well with Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney whose firm specializes in litigating food-borne illness cases. Marler is nothing if not tenacious -- just ask the dozens of food processers and fast-food outlets who have paid more than $600 million in claims to his clients in the past two decades.

The CDC has a policy of seeking "cordial relationships" with companies who supply information voluntarily," its deputy director, Robert Tauxe, said in an interview with MSNBC that was quoted on Marler's blog. It publicly identifies a source of food-borne illness, he said, "only when people can use that information to take specific action to protect their health." The reason Restaurant Chain A had been admitted to the CDC's equivalent of a witness protection program was that the outbreak had already run its course.

Reporters from Food Safety News, the online newspaper funded by Marler's firm, contacted all six of the possible companies. They either refused to reply or insisted that they were not Restaurant Chain A. The reporters kept digging and eventually came across a document from Oklahoma's Department of Health. (Oklahoma was one of the affected states.) Marked "for internal use only" the document was called "Summary of Supplemental Questionnaire Responses Specific to Taco Bell Exposure of Oklahoma Outbreak Associated Cases Multistate Salmonella Enterititis Outbreak Investigation" (PDF). It's a long, convoluted title, but the important words were "Taco Bell."

Even once Food Safety News made the finding public, the CDC maintained its code of omerta. Taco Bell, which the CDC found to have been responsible for a 2006 E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak that sickened more than 70 customers in the Northeast, did not return my call, but the company did put a cryptic post on its website linking to the CDC's investigative report about the recent salmonella outbreak but did not own up to being at fault.

A restaurant poisons its customers. A government agency colludes to keep its identity under wraps. And it takes a scrappy trial attorney to uncover the truth for Americans. Talk about a sickening situation.

Image: Fred Prouser/Reuters.