It was a fascinating few hours at a meeting with a delegation from China as they listened to former FSIS head, Tom Billy, CSPI Food Safety Director, Caroline Smith DeWaal and yours truly, talk candidly about the state of affairs of food safety in the United States. I spoke primarily about how the civil justice system (if used properly) can be a tool, not only to compensate victims, but also as a way for companies to be held accountable for poisoning their customers. I also discussed the need to conduct open discovery so the public can learn how an outbreak occurred and other companies can learn from past errors. I got in a bit of an international dispute when one of the Chinese delegates touted their criminal sanctions (e.g. executions) of food miscreants as opposed to letting the people have access to the courts. I suggested that we import some of China’s criminal laws (not the executions) and we export a few trial lawyers to China. The later drew robust praise from several U.S. Businessmen in attendance, the former not so much.
Last night I also had the opportunity to reconnect with Dr. Gupta who was filming “Lettuce recall: Dr. Sanjay Gupta digs deeper.” Here is the transcript:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that at least 23 people in four states have been sickened after eating Romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The company that distributed the lettuce, Freshway Foods, has voluntarily recalled its products and told CNN it has been cooperating fully with public health officials to track the source of the outbreak. The lettuce was sold to wholesalers, food service outlets, delis and salad bars; no E. coli has been found in the bagged lettuce you can buy in the grocery store.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta sat down with attorney Bill Marler to talk about food safety. Marler, a Seattle, Washington, attorney who specializes in representing victims of foodborne illness, is representing a client in the new lawsuit against Freshway Foods.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: You and I have talked about these issues over the years. What concerns you the most about this?
Bill Marler: Well, I think one of the big concerns is that we are seeing a new form of pathogenic E. coli hitting the market. This particular outbreak is E. coli 0145 just as deadly as the E. coli we hear about a lot, the O157:H7. But I think one of the big concerns is that we are seeing a new bug coming after us in the marketplace.
Gupta: A few years ago we went to one of the hardest hit outbreaks in recent years. The thing that you really impressed upon me at that time Mr. Marler, is this idea you have animals sometimes contaminating crops, you have a lot of natural occurrences that naturally can lead to food being contaminated. First of all, have things been improved since then? And can you really prevent that sort of thing from happening?
Marler: Well, I think the industry – many parts of the industry – have done a remarkable job. We certainly are not seeing the large-scale 200-250 sickened in outbreaks. We still see three or four sometimes five spinach or lettuce outbreaks yearly, and they are much smaller. This particular outbreak appears to be emanating from Arizona and this is the first time that there has been a leafy green outbreak in Arizona. So there are a lot of moving parts that I think we will learn a lot of over the next several months.
Gupta: Is it the FDA, the food maker, when you say somebody has to compensate? Who’s going to compensate?
Marler: Ultimately it will be the grower, the shipper and the manufacturer of this particular lettuce. They have a responsibility to a consumer to do the absolute best they can to get animal feces out of their food products. And that obviously didn’t happen here. Twenty-three states are recalling products. There are at least 23 people sick, probably a lot more because not very many lab tests for E. coli 0145.
See the full interview with Bill Marler on “Sanjay Gupta M.D.,” Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET.