Secrecy has no place in public health |

Secrecy has no place in public health

If you are a citizen of Nevada County, is it better for you to know or not to know whether you have eaten beef recalled by the government, because it may have been exposed to the agent that causes mad cow disease?

If you are an owner whose restaurant served potentially tainted meat, is it better to have the health authorities divulge the name of your place or to have all restaurants be suspected?

Chew on that for a while, because the county Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will make that decision for you: They’re keeping their lips zipped.

Three restaurants in the county served the beef before they were notified of the mad-cow recall. The USDA has known which restaurants for weeks, but didn’t tell the county until Jan. 2. Nevada County Health Officer Dr. Ken Cutler didn’t send out a press release until after fearful rumors were flying around the county.

Even then, the announcement only said the restaurants were in the Truckee area in eastern Nevada County, and left it up to the public to guess which ones.

The USDA has long had a reputation of having more concern for the financial success of meatpackers than the health of the public. But we were surprised to hear that there is a “memorandum of understanding” between the Department of Health and the USDA that exempts them from the Freedom of Information Act. In effect, they can protect companies that recall meat from divulging where they sent it.

So, what is the public left with? A statement from the person whom they thought was their county’s chief health protector saying, “There is no more useful information to be given out. If I thought there was information that would have significant impact on public health, we would make all efforts to make that known.”

“All efforts . . .”? Why does that sound like a joke from the ’60s about three greatest lies? One that drew a lot of chuckles was, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” At least, we used to think it was a joke.

For the record, we would like to know if we might have eaten tainted beef, and we think most citizens would, too.

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