Sitting in the private conference room of U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank yesterday with Stephanie and her mom Sharon as the judge carefully considered the settlement with Cargill, brought home again to me the reality of Stephanie’s struggle – all because she ate a hamburger. As AP reported, “Smith and Cargill announced the settlement last month, saying it would provide for Smith’s care throughout her life.” However, “[t]he former children’s dance instructor was left paralyzed, with cognitive problems and kidney damage.” A settlement, yes, and a door closing, but a life forever changed.

Despite what some critics of strict liability lawsuits say, a lawsuit like Stephanie’s against Cargill does give an incentive to companies to not poison their customers and to put lawyers like me out of business. But, lawsuits are not enough. Education in the sciences – specifically food safety – is important to avoid outbreaks, illnesses and, yes, lawsuits. That is why, as reported in the St. Cloud Times we donated “$25,000 to Rocori High School for science scholarships. … to encourage and support students interested in science, especially in food safety and the treatment of food-borne disease.” As the St. Cloud Times reported:

Marler represents numerous plaintiffs in food-borne illness cases across the country. He also has lobbied Congress for a food-safety bill to provide more money for the Food and Drug Administration to inspect and improve the safety of the nation’s food supply.

Lawsuits, education and politics are important, but good and evolving science also play a part. In reading Shannon Dininny’s AP article this morning, “Regulators consider broadening testing for E. coli,” I thought about how hard it is for all of us to look around the corner at the next risk and to prepare. Yet, it is something we must do.

The food industry and government regulators have focused for years on finding the most virulent strain of E. coli bacteria, which every year sickens thousands. But they don’t regularly test for six less common E. coli strains that can cause illnesses equally as serious. [These s]ix other E. coli strains that also produce the toxin account for the majority of non-O157 E. coli cases — estimated at 30,000 illnesses in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But just 5 percent of public health laboratories nationally test for these strains, so there is no reliable way to know whether the number of illnesses is increasing.

There have been no known outbreaks of the other six strains in meat, but the Seattle law firm that specializes in food-related illnesses, headed by attorney Bill Marler, has petitioned the USDA to list them as adulterants in meat. Marler said he hopes his call for more screening of meat will prompt other industries, such as produce, to follow suit.

And, with more testing, less outbreaks and illnesses.