In less than two weeks (on September 14) the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, headed by Representatives Dingell (D-MI), Waxman (D-CA), and Stupak (D-MI), will hold what has become an annual event–yet another hearing on the failings ofm the food industry to provide consumers safe food.
In 2007 the Committee held hearings on the 2006 E. coli outbreak from contaminated spinach that sickened 205 and killed 5. Shortly thereafter, the hearings were on Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter that sickened 714. In 2008 the Committee focused on the massive recall of some 143,000,000 pounds of meat. In 2009, it was peanut butter with Salmonella again, this time sickening hundreds and killing 9.
Of course, during that same three-year period, dozens of other outbreaks–some just as bad or worse–happened with little notice by anyone other than the victims and their families. And if the CDC is to be believed, during those three years of Committee work 228,000,000 Americans were sickened by food consumption, 975,000 were hospitalized, and 15,000 died.
I attended each of the Committee hearings in 2007, 2008, and 2009. In 2007 and 2009 I went to support clients who were attending to tell their story of a tragically sickened child or parent, or the pain at the death of a loved one–because they ate food. In 2008, I asked the Committee to move on food safety legislation to “put me out of business” as a lawyer representing these people.
The theater of the committee hearings tends to fit a pattern. Grave congress members chastise food manufacturing executives for poisoning consumers (and voters) and belittle federal officials for not preventing the incident (although they have no budget to do so) in the first place. My favorite is when one of the congress members asks a victim–a mom whose two-year-old nearly died from eating E. coli-contaminated spinach or the son of a triple Purple Heart winner who died after consuming Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter, “What do you think we should do to prevent this?”
Almost as entertaining as congress members’ questions is the audience. Most of those who sit for the three hours are paid to do so. For the most part, they are the herds of lawyers for the companies being questioned, lobbyists representing the particular company or industry under fire, and of course, the obligatory consumer groups.
What is absent from the mix is an audience filled with consumers who have been impacted directly by the poisoned product du jour. This gave me an idea. Food Safety News will provide travel expenses, up to $25,000 total, for those who have been linked to the recent Salmonella Enteriditis egg outbreak. For those in the Pacific Time Zone, $1,500 per person is available, for the Mountain Time Zone $1,200, for the Central Time Zone, $1,000 and for the Eastern Time Zone, $500. Anyone interested should email Bill Marler at firstname.lastname@example.org this week to make arrangements.
My hope would be that replacing lobbyists and lawyers present with people who have suffered from foodborne illness recently would give the Committee a flavor for what is real outside the Washington Beltway.