Fulton County health department officials didn't want you to know that. And they don't want you to know if similar levels of bacteria have shown up in other restaurants' food.
That policy isn't exactly consistent with the department's stated mission "to protect and promote the health of all the people of Fulton County and to assure the conditions under which people can be healthy." Because when it comes to the threat of food-borne bacteria, what you don't know can certainly hurt you.
In July, Creative Loafing sent an open records requests to the health department asking for a copy of the investigative report into food poisoning at El Azteca on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The department did not turn over the report, nor did it provide an explanation as to why the report should be kept hidden -- even though the state Open Records Act requires a written response to be sent within three days.
There also was no way for diners to know about El Azteca's bacteria outbreak: The department quietly placed the restaurant on a probation, which consists of no notice to the public, no suspension in service and nothing other than a few extra inspections.
CL got a copy of the investigative report anyway, from an attorney who filed a similar open records request. The story of the El Azteca customer's death and details of the report appeared in the Aug. 8 issue.
After the story's publication, the department started dodging requests for more information.
On Sept. 13, CL sent a request asking that the department cite in writing the reason why it withheld the report.
Days later, department head Dr. Adewale Troutman said he believed someone in the epidemiology division had sent CL a copy of the report in July.
On Sept. 20, CL filed a request asking for access to all investigative documents concerning outbreaks of food-borne illnesses at any Fulton County restaurant over the past three years.
The department didn't respond to that request until Oct. 3 -- again violating the state's Open Records Act.
"I've told them that they need to make a response within three days," says Fulton County Attorney Rolesia Butler Dancy, who finally responded on behalf of the health department. "They all know this, and I don't know why they're delaying in responding to you."
Dancy wrote in her response that the material CL requested is not public record because "investigations of food poisonings conducted by the county's epidemiology department are confidential."
Dancy says the county had released a copy of the food poisoning report to Harper because he represents the wife of the man whose medical information was listed in the report. She says confidential records can be released with a relative's permission.
But Harper says he did not include permission from the man's wife in his request for the report. And the report doesn't even list the name of the man who died. He, his wife and the seven other people who may have gotten sick at El Azteca are listed as "Case No. 1", "Case No. 2", etc.
Furthermore, the statute on which Dancy relied states that outbreaks of certain diseases must be reported to county boards of health and state health agencies in order to prevent further infections. Those reports and data are confidential and not open to public inspection, the law states.
But, is contracting a disease the same thing as eating contaminated food? And if it is, how can the release of an epidemiological report with no names be considered a breach of confidentiality?
A source in the state Attorney General's Office says that the staff is looking into the department's responses to CL's requests and that the statute, commonly used to protect the names of patients with infectious diseases, is a difficult one to interpret. The statute has not faced a court challenge, thus there is no case law to use as a reference.
Violators of the Open Records Act face only a maximum $100 fine per violation, but it's the stigma of the violation, rather than the fine, that would sting, according to Hollie Mannheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
In withholding the documents, the health department may be endangering the people whose health it is supposed to protect, Mannheimer says.
"The whole point of the Open Records Act is to foster public safety," she says. "It sure seems that the act is designed, on the most fundamental level, to give access to [documents that describe] hazards where we dine out in public."
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