Thank you NMA for inviting me here to Las Vegas. My guess is inviting a trial lawyer into your convention is a bit of a “gamble.”
Once again another food poisoning outbreak, perhaps slightly more outrageous than the ones before, now with over 650 sickened, 150 hospitalized and nine deaths, but eerily similar to those that have come before it. There is the familiar crush of the media for a picture or a quote of a victim, the vows by politicians to see this never happens again, and there is the anguish of burying a parent because they ate a quintessential American food – this time peanut butter.
I spent last week in Washington DC watching the latest version of the food safety play that seems to run on a constant loop – year to year – decade to decade. Some of the characters change – new victims – new food products – new poisons – new businesses causing the outbreak, but, the governmental response as to why this debacle is not its fault and the call by congressional leaders for new legislation are the same. If you re-run the tapes from the Jack-in-the-Box hearings from 1993 and peanut butter hearings last week they are remarkably the same – including the lack of action.
The time has long past to do something to stop the tape and to prevent the next outbreak. There are now several pieces of food safety legislation in the halls of the House and the Senate – some newer, most are dusted off every time that there is another outbreak that requires another press conference and media opportunity. Yet also in the halls of congress, are those that say the timing is not right to do things on food safety – the economy takes priority – or, some other reason that continued, cautious inaction is required and the various proposals remain shelved.
Frankly, the time has come to act and not continue simply to react. Consumers, Farmers, Suppliers, Manufacturers, Retailers, Regulators and Politicians need to work together to make our food supply safe, profitable and sustainable. When a quarter of our population is sickened yearly by contaminated food, when thousands die, we do not have the “safest food supply in the world.” When a whole industry looses hundreds of millions of dollars because government picks tomatoes when it really was peppers, we should, must, and can do better.
First, create a local, state and national public health system that catches outbreaks before they balloon into personal and business catastrophe. Surveillance of human bacterial disease is lacking. For many foodborne illnesses, for everyone culture positive case, 20 to 40 other cases are missed because of lack of surveillance. Most people who become ill with a bacterial or viral disease are either seldom seen or never cultured. The more people are tested, the greater the likelihood that a source, accidental or not, will be found sooner.
Second, governmental departments, whether local, state or federal, need to learn to “play well together.” Turf battles need to take a back seat to stopping an outbreak and tracking it to its source. That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending producer – not an entire industry – is brought to heel.
Third, we cannot completely regulate ourselves out of this. Standards need to be set with the entire food chain at the table – from farmer, to manufacturer, to retailer and customer. Standards must also be based upon good science.
Fourth, promote research to develop better technologies to make food safe. Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety interventions and employee training. 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 and stop the disruption to the economy.
Fifth, improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness. Industry cannot rely on working parents or the minimum wage worker to be the last “kill step” – not without an investment in real education.
Sixth, there are too few legal consequences for recklessly sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines and prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.
None of this will stop bacterial and viral illnesses entirely. These invisible poisons have been around a long time. However, these six steps will enable us to help prevent it, help detect it far more quickly, to alert stores and families, and to keep our most vulnerable citizens – kids and seniors – out of harm’s way.