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.