Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 6.07.41 PMFood manufacturers have created dangerous production systems that are sending Americans to the hospital all too often, a new report today by the American Association for Justice (AAJ) says. Because regulators have been unable to keep up with an ever-changing industry, the civil justice system has become consumers’ most important protection against unsafe food.

Every year, 48 million people fall sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and at least 3,000 die from food borne illness, costing the nation approximately $77 billion. Recalls in 2015 have surged compared to 2014 rates. In one of the most recent high-profile outbreaks, three people died after consuming Blue Bell ice cream contaminated with listeria. The company reportedly knew as early as 2013 that it had listeria in one of its plants. The outbreak is the most recent of the “ten worst outbreaks” chronicled in the new report.

Federal regulators, the AAJ report outlines, have not had the capabilities to respond to changes in the food industry and adequately protect the public. Most non-meat food manufacturing facilities and farms are not visited regularly by federal inspectors. The FDA is issuing a series of new rules, but will still have inadequate funding to make frequent inspections. The USDA stations inspectors at meat processing facilities, but will not order companies to recall products.

The civil justice system is also the most effective tool for rooting out systemic problems in the food chain. Private attorneys have the ability to compel producers, suppliers, buyers, and auditors to disclose information that helps trace how food was allowed to become contaminated, and pinpoint the parties responsible.

“The civil justice system has proven to be the most effective – and sometimes the only – mechanism for deterring negligent behavior and rooting out systemic problems in the food chain,” David Ratcliff, researcher at AAJ and co-author of the report, said on the call today.

The report calls on Congress to declare multi-drug-resistant salmonella strains an official adulterant, which would force meat producers to take further steps to prevent contamination, and to pass legislation to create a single agency to oversee food safety.