Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

The Science and Law of Tracking Foodborne Illness – Part 1

I get asked quite often what I do and how I do it.  Below is the beginning of a ten part series that I have been working on – I hope you find it helpful.

Part 1

Introduction

Each year, about 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur in the United States, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That means one in four Americans contracts an illness each year by eating food that has been contaminated with such pathogens as E. coli, Salmonella, hepatitis A, Campylobacter, Shigella, Norovirus and Listeria. Most of those illnesses are relatively minor. But about 325,000 of these individuals will be hospitalized, and 5,000 will die. Billions of dollars will be spent on medical treatment and billions more lost in decreased food sales and, for the families of sick people, lost wages. When careless business practices poison customers, and when regulatory agencies do not have the manpower or ability to help business perform, people die and market share is lost, nationally and internationally.

Foodborne Illness: A changing landscape

The issue of food safety is not new. A century ago, Upton Sinclair exposed the corruption within the U.S. meat-processing industry that caused federal meat inspectors to turn a blind eye to contamination in his muckraking book, “The Jungle.” But some important changes have occurred since Sinclair’s book.

First, meat and meat processing are no longer the most common source of foodborne illness. Today that dubious distinction belongs to seemingly innocuous and healthful vegetables, including lettuce, spinach, sprouts, tomatoes, spinach, green onions and parsley – even almonds. In the past 10 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported 21 outbreaks related to fresh leafy products. Just last year, 205 people became sick and five died from eating E. coli-contaminated spinach. Late last year and throughout this year, the CDC reported that more than 425 people in 44 states became infected with Salmonella found in peanut butter, all traced to one processing plant in Georgia. More than 70 were hospitalized. From experience, we know cases of Salmonella are under-reported, so that it is likely that the number of people sickened may well have been more than 15,000.

More recently, we’ve seen an increase in the incidence of foodborne illness related to consumption of dairy products. In the Pacific Northwest and around the country, there have been more than 40 outbreaks of E. coli and other pathogens attributed to consumption of unpasteurized milk and other dairy products. In one recent case, 140 people reported consuming raw milk from a small family-owned dairy in Washington State; of these, 18 became ill with E. coli, and five of them were children under the age of 13.

The second new development in food safety is the result of the shrinking world and the global marketplace. Those new variables include the threat of terrorist attacks via the food network – a potential disaster that was probably not seriously contemplated before the horror of September 11. In addition, we are seeing the widespread growth of food imports, leading to problems such as a hepatitis A outbreak traced to green onions from Mexico and the illnesses and deaths of thousands of American pets traced to contaminated wheat gluten from China.

And finally, there’s the scientifically questionable but increasingly popular demand for “natural,” or unprocessed foods, such as raw milk or unpasteurized juice, or “environmentally friendly” practices such as recycling water or planting native grasses. Experience seems to be telling us that the benefits of such practices are often offset by the risks – particularly to children and others with compromised immune systems.

Given these changes, we shouldn’t be surprised that food safety has become, more than ever, a legal and political issue, as well as a question of personal and corporate ethics.