Red Bay Primary's mystery illness: The 'unknowns'

Two weeks ago, more than 100 children and staff fell ill after eating lunch at Red Bay Primary School.

We still don’t know why. In fact, we may never know why. … And it’s time for government officials to admit it outright.

We are not criticizing the actions of our public officials, but questioning their silence, which is, in a word, mysterious. This is not good, from a public relations standpoint.

As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once quipped: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

It is the last of these, the “unknown unknowns,” that is most distressing. That is where we stand now in regard to the mass illness at Red Bay. Officials could, in a few statements, downgrade the situation to the less-unsettling class of “known unknowns.”

If officials’ reticence to speak stems from caution about spreading fear, then they are misguided in their motive. The most reassuring course of action would be to explain plainly and exactly what they do know, what they don’t know, and, most importantly, exactly what they are doing to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

Let us attempt to fill in the gaps.

First, here’s what we know:

On Wednesday, Sept. 2, some 107 students and staff at Red Bay ate lunch, then reported symptoms of vomiting and abdominal pain. Twenty-three people went to the hospital, where they were treated and released the same day

No subsequent illnesses were reported at Red Bay. No other outbreaks occurred at any of the other schools that day

Mise en Place Professional Catering provides the food (which is then prepared in the school’s kitchen) to Red Bay students, among more than 2,000 students in government and private schools daily

Tests conducted on the food samples have come back “negative” — meaning it is unlikely the food was the source of the outbreak.

Here’s what we don’t know:

What caused the outbreak of illness.

Here’s what they’re doing about it:

The school’s kitchen facilities and equipment have been thoroughly cleaned

Following the return of the test results, the school’s kitchen reopened Tuesday.

It is notoriously difficult, sometimes practically impossible, to identify the primary cause of a particular outbreak of illness, especially when it may be a foodborne illness. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, “Food is complicated.”

While knowing the precise source of the illness at Red Bay would be nice, we don’t believe that information is necessary in order to prevent a similar incident from recurring — so long as our health officials have done their due diligence, which appears to be the case.

In our professional, but non-medical, opinion, the surest cure for lingering anxieties about the safety of the Red Bay kitchen would be for a public official, such as Premier Alden McLaughlin, who is minister of health, to issue a simple declarative that the facility is safe, and then to demonstrate that the kitchen is “officially reopen” for lunch, by putting his money — or more accurately, his fork — where his mouth is. (Even better, our premier might want to host a lunch — no “food tasters” allowed — for his entire Cabinet at the school.)

Bon appétit!



  1. It is NOT notoriously difficult, sometimes practically impossible, to identify the primary cause of a particular outbreak of illness if they knew what they are doing.
    Poisons pass through human body and leave traces in blood, urine and stool. Ill children were taken to the Hospital. How many samples were taken? All of the ill people would have shown the same toxins, substances that made them ill in their blood, urine and stool samples.

  2. Dear Editorial board,
    I really like the idea of inviting ministers and officers of Health and Education to the Red Bay Primary Canteen. I’ve put the invitation out there.
    However I really didn’t like the cartoon you put in the paper on Friday . It was not appropriate or funny but now that we know it’s not related to the food served it’s become irrelevant.I think you should have all the facts before you make light of what is a pretty distressing situation for the parties involved.I understand a full report on the illness is being released today or tomorrow.