Think Last Night's Burger Made You Feel Sick Today? Think Again.
When I interviewed James Childers and asked him how many people got sick eating at restaurants in Dallas, his answer begged the question. He said his department received 117 complaints, in the last year but noted they were only complaints, not confirmed food-borne illness outbreaks.
So I asked him how many outbreaks were confirmed during the same period as a result of the mismanaged restaurant inspection program. He said he didn't know. The Department of Health and Human Services deals with outbreaks -- his department deals with food safety compliance.
OK, then, onto Dr. Wendy Chung, the chief epidemiologist at the Health Department, who pointed me to this report, which lists confirmed cases of all sorts of funky stuff. The data for 2011 hasn't been compiled yet, but in 2010 there were 722 confirmed cases of enteric diseases in Dallas County, but that includes people who make themselves sick with undercooked chicken at home.
Chung wasn't answering my question either, but she wasn't being shifty. She really didn't know. Tracking food borne illnesses is a tough science. There are many ways to contract salmonellosis. Sure, you can get it from improperly handled food, but you can also get it from shaking the hand of someone who has recently handled mishandled food. You can even get it from touching a doorknob that's been contaminated, just like you can catch a common cold.
What makes her job harder is that many food borne illnesses have a long incubation period. You can consume food that is infected and not show symptoms for days. Some illnesses like listeriosis can take weeks to present symptoms. These latencies cause most people to blame the wrong restaurant for their intestinal woes. It's called "recall bias," Chung told me, and it works like this:
Timmy eats a tainted taco at Tippy's Taco on Tuesday, and spends the rest of the week telling everyone how great the food was. Then on Friday at happy hour he eats a chicken wing off a buffet table and drinks a few beers. That night he doubles over with abdominal cramping and thinks "curse you chicken wing!" He's convinced his favorite bar has poisoned him and vows never to eat there again. But guess where he goes the next time he wants a taco.
So when Chung hears that Timmy has salmonellosis, she has to record his food history for the seven days before the symptoms began to appear. (I can't even remember what I ate last night sometimes.) All that information gets put into a database and it's only when Tippy's gets added more than once in a short period of time that she'll start to investigate.
So how often does that happen? Chung wouldn't tell me. She said it's very difficult to trace these illnesses back to restaurants, that it takes years to compile this sort of data and that she couldn't say with any certainty how many times it's happened. She could only tell me how many bacterial outbreaks had been confirmed in Texas in 2008. She pointed me to this report and told me 14.
OK, so tracing this stuff is tricky, I get it. The lack of data the Health Department receives makes it hard to attribute any one illness to any one restaurant. It's not until a place makes a lot of people sick that enough data is produced for Chung to attribute it to anything. Which means for small day-to-day food poisoning incidents we're kind of on our own. Which means it's all the more important that Childers and his inspectors do their job and assure our safety.