I am off this morning to speak Monday at the annual Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) Conference in Pittsburgh. My Speech is entitled: “Consumers, Canaries in the Coal Mine.”

Screen shot 2011-06-12 at 4.28.53 AM.pngConsumers place great trust in our food supply. Since foodborne pathogens are generally odorless and tasteless, consumers cannot fully evaluate the quality of the food they purchase. Thus, they serve as “canaries in the coal mine,” a reference to early mining practices of using canaries to detect dangerous gas build-up. A dead canary meant immediate danger just as an ill consumer signals defective and unsafe food. Yet, the complexities of our modern day food supply impede detection of system failures that contribute to foodborne illness. The result is that most food related illnesses are never recognized and the party at fault is not held accountable. The lack of marketplace accountability for foodborne illness means that manufacturers and distributors have little incentive to incur costs to prevent foodborne illness. Adding insult to injury, in most instances it is the consumer who pays for a manufacturer’s decision not to invest in food safety. Must the consumer be relegated to canary status with little control over his fate?

Foodborne illness litigation serves as consumer advocacy for food safety. Foodborne illness litigation is based on strict liability laws which put the costs of injuries resulting from defective products on manufacturers. If the facts of the case clearly show injuries due to consumption of contaminated food, foodborne illness related lawsuits are easy to prove. Economically speaking, a product liability lawsuit is a mechanism to shift the costs of damages caused by the sale and profit of unsafe food from the consumer to the manufacturer. Lawsuits can affect the behavior of firms that make or distribute food products although the magnitude of this effect is unknown. Furthermore, process and product innovation more often occurs after illness occurs.

CSTE is an organization of member states and territories representing public health epidemiologists. CSTE works to establish more effective relationships among state and other health agencies. It also provides technical advice and assistance to partner organizations and to federal public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CSTE members have surveillance and epidemiology expertise in a broad range of areas including occupational health, infectious diseases, immunization, environmental health, chronic diseases, injury control, and maternal and child health. CSTE promotes the effective use of epidemiologic data to guide public health practice and improve health. CSTE accomplishes this by supporting the use of effective public health surveillance and good epidemiologic practice through training, capacity development, and peer consultation, developing standards for practice, and advocating for resources and scientifically based policy.

  • Doc Mudd

    Isn’t CSTE with all their geeky tests & microscopes made obsolete by Kathleen Merrigan’s “know your farmer, know your food” campaign?
    Who needs a bunch of stodgy old applied scientists poking around when you can just ask the quaint vendor who’s angling for your grocery money if he/she has grown and handled your food safely? The vendor will tell you “yes” and you can get on with life with your family. No canaries, no worries!
    I may have just saved you a trip to Pittsburgh. You can thank me later.

  • John Munsell

    You correctly stated that foodborne pathogens are generally odorless and tasteless. This is one justification for USDA-style HACCP. The agency criticized its previous pre-HACCP meat inspection system as being “organoleptic”, meaning that inspectors were limited to sensory detection of pathogens using the organoleptic senses, such as sight, smell, touch, etc, which cannot detect E.coli & Salmonella for example. The shortcomings of organoleptic inspection were showcased at Jack In The Box. Organoleptic inspection was criticized as being a mere “poke & sniff” system.
    As recently reported, the incidence of E.coli-laced food has greatly diminished. However, the incidence of E.coli outbreaks and recalls remains awkwardly high. I suggest that this dilemma would be greatly diminished if FSIS employed a sizeable cadre of epidemiologists, coupled with removing artificial agency hindrances which effectively prevent tracebacks to the source. Admittedly, such changes would be difficult, but certainly possible if only the agency willingly embraced the need for such changes. Why has FDA been so successful in tracing back to the one farm where contaminated lettuce, spinach, or peppers (now sprouts) were produced, even though FDA inspectors visit such establishments as infrequently as once every 5 years or more? Also: eggs, peanut butter, and cookie dough. In stark contrast, although FSIS inspectors are in every meat plant every day, the agency has lacked the ability (actually, the DESIRE) to traceback to the slaughter plant which introduced E.coli or Salmonella into the food chain.
    I know that FSIS already employs epidemiologists. They need to be liberated, in the absence of artificial restrictions which limit their effectiveness.
    John Munsell

  • Gabrielle Meunier

    Unfortunately consumers continue to be the canaries in the coal mine. My son was one (canary) when he happened to eat a packaged peanutbutter cracker and was seriously injured. Seems to me that many people in Germany may have “known their farmer” and it was an Organic farmer, no less, and did that spare their injury? I don’t believe “know your farmer” is any solution to avoiding pathogens in food. I believe following a solid HACCP protocol tailored to your food production is the best mitigation. Present bills in Congress are trying to make exceptions to the the Food Safety Modernization Act and the Act itself gives exception to small farms, which seems counter-intuitive to what everybody’s goal should be of selling and purchasing safe food (or as safe as possible). Food producers should not be discouraged from starting a business, but like so many other businesses, it needs to be regulated in an intelligent way. You can’t open a small nail salon without the proper licensure, why should food production be different (no matter what the size)?