Identifying Commercial Entities During Outbreak Investigations

When investigating outbreaks of infectious disease, public health investigators sometimes find that the way people get sick involves a commercial entity (e.g., a store or restaurant they patronized), an institution or company (e.g., a hotel or hospital they stayed at), or a particular product they bought.

CDC has a long-standing practice of regularly disclosing names of commercial entities implicated in infectious disease outbreaks in order to protect public health. These disclosures have helped the public reduce their health risks and have helped commercial entities improve the safety of their practices and products. As each situation is unique, it is important that CDC programs evaluate whether to identify an implicated entity on a case-by-case basis, working in partnership with affected states and other partners.

Timing matters. Early in an ongoing investigation, releasing the name of a “suspected” source may interfere with the investigative process. Once a specific source is implicated in an infectious disease outbreak, CDC routinely provides information during an ongoing investigation if there are actions that individuals can take to protect their health. When an outbreak is over and the investigation has been completed, CDC usually provides specific information when there is conclusive evidence regarding the root cause of contamination.

Generally, the decision to disclose names of commercial entities should be made with the involved state or states. Long after the outbreak is controlled, in publications that add to the body of knowledge on public health topics, CDC typically refers to implicated entities anonymously (e.g., “Restaurant A” or “Supplier B”) rather than by name, as the specific implications have little relevance for public health in the longer term. In some situations, Federal law will dictate whether CDC may disclose or must protect the identity of commercial entities, for example a requirement to protect commercial confidential information.