After litigating foodborne illness lawsuits for 20 years, food has become a “contact sport,” much like football, or for the rest of the world, soccer. Whether it is dining at home or out, the thought of how the food might well poison you is never far from my mind. Years ago, I asked my long suffering spouse why we seemed never to be invited over to friend’s home for dinner after hosting more than a few over-cooked meals at our home, she simply said, “you make them nervous about food.”
When E. coli O157:H7 crashed into the food industry’s awareness during the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak of 1992/1993 – after not paying attention to the McDonald’s E. coli O157:H7 outbreak a decade earlier – hamburgers began to take on an ominous air at the Marler household as opposed to the “Happy Meal.” After I saw Brianne Kiner in the hospital shortly after coming out of a coma, still on dialysis, post large intestine removal, and after suffering multiple seizures, never was a burger served at our home. My kids were not allowed to eat them while their friends did. As you can well imagine there were more than a few odd discussions with parents about meal preparation for sleepovers. But, to see a child’s life forever changed, or ended, by consuming a hamburger, does change your perspective on what is considered safe – especially for your kids.
In the decades since more food was either checked off the shopping list or if consumed it was with an unnatural gulp. E. coli found its way into sprouts, juice, lettuce, spinach and even cookie dough. Salmonella stayed on chicken (allowed there to be there by odd USDA/FSIS decisions). Salmonella slipped into peanut butter, mangoes, tomatoes (or was that peppers?) and even potpies. Listeria continued to be a pest in deli meats and cheeses, and expanded its deadly toll to cantaloupe. After 20 years looking at this buffet, it is easy to see why food began to look less like something to be enjoyed, but more something to be wary of.
The decades have not been without food safety successes. During the height of the yet another Summer E. coli outbreak linked to hamburger in 2002, I penned an Op-ed for the Denver post entitled, “Put me out of business.” I banked on the animus that lawyers have – slightly below used car salesmen, yet comfortably above members of Congress – to convince the beef industry that I was making too much money off its failure to get ahold of the deadly pathogen. The beef and restaurant industries responded (likely more to the fact that E. coli was listed as an adulterant by the USDA/FSIS and increased cook temperatures), and my firm’s E. coli income linked to hamburger dropped from 90% to nearly zero today – a success by anyone’s measure.
There remain challenges to a safer table as this book clearly lays out. With 48,000,000 fellow citizens sickened each year, 125,000 hospitalized and 3,000 deaths linked to food consumption, and with an increasing population of those facing some form of compromised immune system, the farm to fork continuum continues to be confronted with persistent and emerging risks.
It is true that foodborne illnesses has been with us from the beginning and will continue to remain a challenge for an ever-increasing population. But, what is also clear, there are people and institutions ignoring that reality to try to prevent a next Brianne, and to make food not something to be feared, but savored.