Once again, hundreds of Americans have been sickened by outbreaks of foodborne illness. This time it is nearly 1,000 (and counting) in 40 States put down by salmonella in fresh tomatoes (or is it the salsa?), and nearly 50 in Ohio and Michigan (possibly Georgia) stricken by the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, again in hamburger. Tomatoes have been recalled nearly every year for the last 10, with hundreds ill. Hamburger, well, since the spring of 2007, we have recalled over 30 million pounds after it was linked to ill people, mostly children in nearly every state. Consumers (hint candidates – voters) have lost confidence in the businesses that feed them and a government that is supposed to protect them.
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 with conflicting missions, 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, like it or not, 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 topped by contaminated tomatoes.
In the last few months, I’ve asked some of the leading experts in the field – doctors, researchers, food safety consultants and governmental officials – to suggest what the next President – be it McCain or Obama – could do to combat this recurring epidemic. Here are the “top eleven” of what they (with a few edits and additions by me) suggest:
- 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. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped.
- These same 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 – are brought to heal.
- Require real training and certification of food handlers at restaurants and grocery stores. There also should be incentives for ill employees not to come to work when ill. We should impose fines and penalties on employers who do not cooperate.
- 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.
- Increase food inspections. While domestic production has continued to be a problem, imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors – domestically and abroad – and we need to require that they receive the training in how to identify and control hazards.
- Reorganize federal, state and local food safety agencies to increase cooperation and reduce wasteful overlap and conflicts. Reform federal, state and local agencies to make them more proactive, and less reactive. This too requires financial resources and accountability. We also 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.
- There are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.
- 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. When I buy a book on line I can track it all the way to my mailbox. However, we have yet to find the source of a tomato (or salsa) outbreak after months of sickening hundreds.
- 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. Greatly expand irradiation of raw hamburger and other high-risk products.
- Improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness. Foster a popular campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which uses consumer power to promote a no-tolerance policy toward growers and companies that produce tainted food.
- Provide Presidential leadership on a topic that impacts every single one of us.
Perhaps this is a bit too much to ask the presidential candidates to chew on? However, they should think about it at least politically, if not morally. In America in 2008 it is criminal, that according to the CDC, ever year nearly a quarter of our population is sickened, 350,000 hospitalized and 5,000 die, because they ate food. People who eat food and get sick also vote. Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama, do the math.
Well, at least one person read what I wrote: See, Seattle PI – "secret ingredients."