Every industry has trade secrets: information a company doesn’t want public to protect their brand against the competition. For some companies, this “confidential commercial information,” as it’s sometimes legally called, is their lifeline – and releasing it could seriously undermine their business. But what if keeping that secret runs up against a public health issue? That’s the scenario currently playing out for The SoyNut Butter Company – a brand that has been linked to a recent E. coli outbreak.
What is clear is that federal officials have traced an outbreak of E. coli that has affected 16 people, including 14 children, in nine states to peanut allergy substitutes used by The SoyNut Butter Company to make its I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter and I.M Healthy Granola products. The Center for Disease Control originally announced this outbreak and its link to SoyNut products back on March 3, leading The SoyNut Butter Company to first recall its I.M. Healthy Original Creamy SoyNut Butter on March 4, before expanding the recall to also include all I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butters and I.M. Healthy Granola products on March 7, followed on March 10 to include its Dixie Diner’s Club brand Carb Not Beanit Butter.
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But as the scope of the recall continued to expand, the actual source has remained hidden from the public. According to the Miami Herald, The SoyNut Butter Company said a contractor made the tainted products. And while SoyNut has given that information to the FDA, the FDA says its hands are tied as far as releasing it. “The name of the contracted party is considered Confidential Commercial Information,” Peter Cassell, an FDA spokesman, told the Herald. “FDA is subject to rules limiting its ability to disclose CCI.” For its part, the SoyNut Butter Company wrote on its website that the news of the outbreak “is deeply concerning to us” and the company is working with the FDA and CDC to resolve the issue. But that lack of disclosure on the source of the contamination has led to some wonky sounding lawsuits, with at least one naming “John Does 1-3” alongside the SoyNut Butter Company as defendants – a placeholder for action against a potential manufacturer, distributor and seller “whose identifies and citizenship are presently unknown.”