The Hidden Outbreak: Why Restaurants Stay Anonymous

Fast food chain linked to salmonella outbreak later outed as Taco Bell.

ByABC News
February 3, 2012, 9:02 AM

Feb. 3, 2012 — -- After a certain fast food chain was linked to an outbreak of salmonella that sent at least 20 people to the hospital last year, food safety officials decided it wasn't necessary to tell consumers which restaurant was allegedly involved.

In fact, in dozens of cases after the outbreaks were over, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control kept the names of restaurants that were part of investigations secret, apparently for fear of damaging their relationships with the companies.

"Companies voluntarily share information with CDC and FDA, so when we publish company or brand names and there is not a public health need to do, it could have the effect of discouraging such cooperation between our agencies and the food industry," an FDA spokesperson told ABC News.

According to long-standing policy at both federal agencies, as long as it does not pose an ongoing public health risk, companies that may be the source of dangerous outbreaks are kept out of the headlines -- a policy critics say is dangerous in itself.

"I have the right to know that because I might want to shop there. I may not want to take my kids there," said Bill Marler, a food safety attorney and contributor at Food Safety News.

READ: No Quiero Salmonella: Taco Bell Linked to Outbreak

Oregon native Barbara Pruitt, who almost died from a case of salmonella three years ago, agreed.

"I don't think I should be jeopardized because someone can't let me know about information that is readily available," she said.

But Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University defended the health officials' policy, saying it's unnecessary to name companies when there's no immediate hazard.

"It's generally the practice of the CDC to go to the media and publicize outbreaks when there's something the public needs to do, but in those circumstances when there's nothing to do, then there's no need to publicize the name," Schaffner told ABC News. "In any restaurant after the outbreak is over -- when there's no longer any hazard associated with eating there -- the only thing to gain from giving out the name of the restaurant is that it would lose business."

Former FDA associate commissioner David Acheson said the policy is in place because it's not the food safety officials' mission to "name and shame" the restaurants involved, but just to protect public health. Still, he said the policy makes the regulators and industry officials look bad.

"You've got the public saying, 'Well, what do you mean you won't tell us? This is taxpayer dollars. We're paying your paycheck. Of course you should tell us,'" he said. "It's getting many people in the public sector to say, 'Well, we can't trust these guys.' And that's bad."

In the most recent case, Food Safety News revealed Wednesday that a mysterious "Mexican-style" restaurant chain linked to an October 2011 salmonella, only identified as "Restaurant Chain A" in official documents, was actually the popular fast food restaurant Taco Bell.

But until their report, consumers were unaware who the CDC was referring to when it said in a report that "contamination likely occurred before the product reached Restaurant Chain A locations" in the 10 states where a total of 68 people were infected.

Taco Bell noted in a statement to ABC News that the CDC had not discovered the definitive source of the outbreak and said the department only "indicated that some people who were ill ate at Taco Bell, while others did not."

"We take food quality and safety very seriously," the statement said.

READ: Full Taco Bell Statement and WATCH: Taco Bell's Video Response