I was asked to post some of my thoughts on food safety (or lack thereof) on the PBS NOW Series site.
After a brief lull a few years ago, we’re seeing a sweeping increase in outbreaks of Salmonella, E. coli and other foodborne contaminates. There are many reasons for this ugly trend – businesses more focused on sales than safety, fragmented government agencies, inadequate inspection of foods, poorly educated food handlers and lack of consumer awareness, to name a few. The reality is that we now live in a global food supply and we need to come up with global solutions that leverage our scientific and technological capabilities to prevent human illness and death.
These outbreaks should be good news to a lawyer like me, since I specialize in representing people sickened by tainted food. But it isn’t, because it means I’ll be seeing more four and five-year-old kids hooked up to kidney dialysis machines, their lives hanging by a thread because they ate a tainted burger or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I often say: Put me out of business, please! And I mean it.
Here are my Top Ten ideas to combat this recurring epidemic:
1. Improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders—ER physicians and local doctors—need to be encouraged to test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly.
2. Federal, state, and local governmental departments need to learn to "play well together." That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending producer—not an entire industry—are brought to heel.
3. Require real training and certification of food handlers at restaurants and grocery stores. There also should be incentives for sick employees to stay home when ill.
4. Stiffen license requirements for large farm, retail and wholesale food outlets, so that nobody gets a license until they and their employees have shown they understand the hazards and how to avoid them.
5. Increase food inspections. While domestic production has continued to be a problem, imports pose an increasing risk. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. More funding and inspectors are needed.
6. Reform federal, state, and local agencies to make them more proactive, and less reactive. We need to modernize food safety statutes by replacing the existing collection of often conflicting laws and regulation with one uniform food safety law of the highest standard.
7. There are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food in the US. We should impose stiff fines and even prison sentences for violators, and consider stiffer penalties for repeat violators.
8. We need to use our technology to make food more traceable so that when an outbreak occurs authorities can quickly identify the source and limit the spread of the contamination.
9. Promote university research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination. Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety research and employee training.
10. Improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness.
This may seem like a lot for a busy administration to chew on, but according to the CDC, every year nearly a quarter of our population is sickened, 350,000 hospitalized and 5,000 die, because of what they ate. People who eat and get sick also vote. Our politicians should do the math.
William Marler is the managing partner of Marler Clark L.L.P., P.S. and a national expert in foodborne illness litigation. Mr. Marler lives in Seattle, where he is a trial lawyer, husband, and father of three daughters. He writes about food safety, food policy, and foodborne illness on his award-winning blog, www.marlerblog.com.