In April 2007, Rick Perlstein penned a piece entitled “E. Coli Conservatism.”  His bottom line was the “Conservatism has been killing Americans. The recent food safety crisis is only one case study.”  Perhaps he is in part right.  However, whatever the political reasons for the “food safety crisis,” it has been long in coming and the system needs to be fixed.

E. coli is a powerful and deadly bacterium.  You cannot see it, taste it, or smell it. 250,000 E. coli bacteria will fit on the head of a pin.  Ten to 50 will kill your child or your grandmother.  Most likely due the expertise of Children’s Hospitals, and other top medical centers around the country, deaths at times are avoided, however, often not before Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) nearly kills.  HUS, a complication from an E. coli infection, can cause severe damage to kidneys, intestines, liver and pancreas.  Falling into a coma and suffering further from cognitive impairment are all too common.

I have seen the inside of too many of those Intensive Care Units with families who are scared senseless as they watch their child or mother shutdown.  For 16 years, this has been my world.   When I was an undergraduate, I read Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle.  That book took the American public on a tour of the contaminated underbelly of the meat industry and they were sickened.  It led to the Pure Food & Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, versions of which are still in place today.

Until 1993, I thought—because of those laws—that the United States had a safe and secure food supply. But, then came the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak.  It killed four, and sickened hundreds, including many who were gravely ill with HUS and related complications.  Many of those victims became my clients.  Once again, there was a public outcry for safe meat.  The Food Safety & Inspection Service responded by creating and aggressively enforcing the Mandatory Risk Management System.  Based on research and practices of the U.S. Space Program, the risk management system established checkpoints at every phase of meat processing.

Although, the presence of some E. coli in hamburger was defined as an adulterant under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, I continued to sue “Big Meat” as most of my clients up to 2002 were children who were made sick by eating E. coli contaminated meat.  I recovered over $350 million during this period from the meat industry and the restaurants they supplied in verdicts and settlements on behalf of those clients.  In 2003 recalls of meat laced with E. coli began to decline.  After 24 million pounds of contaminated beef were recalled in 34 separate incidents in 2002, recalls dropped off to just over a million pounds a year for the next three years, and then to just 181,900 pounds in 2006.  The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention saw E. coli – related illnesses drop 48% between 2002 and 2006.

But then came Spring 2007.  E. coli, which begins its life in the hindgut of a cow, mounted a surge on its home court.  And, it came back with a vengeance.  Forty-four million pounds of beef have been recalled in 25 incidents.  All over the country, slaughterhouses, packing and distribution centers, retail outlets, and restaurants were once again testing positive for E. coli and people-mostly children-were getting seriously sick.  The American meat supply, which had again been touted as safest in the world, tumbled back into disarray.  But, why?

As with any unexplained mystery, theories abound.  Could it really just be meat industry complacency?  Did everyone respond to the good numbers in 2006 by taking a long nap?  Did meat processors slack off—consciously or unconsciously—and relax their testing procedures?  Did government regulators take a few years off?

Or could it be better reporting?  Doctors are more aware of E. coli now, and perhaps when patients present symptoms of food poisoning; tests are more likely to be ordered.  When the presence of E coli is found and reported, a recall is triggered.

There’s always global warming.  Seriously though – very smart people have posited that droughts in the southeast and southwest have launched more fecal dust into the air, which then finds its way into beef slaughtering plants.  It has also been suggested that the rainfall in other areas created muddy pens—an ideal environment for E. coli.

Why not blame high oil prices?  High prices have fueled the growth of ethanol plants.  These plants are often built next to feedlots, and a byproduct of the ethanol production process—distiller’s grains—is considered an excellent and cheap alternative to corn for cattle feed.  Unfortunately, research associates the use of distiller’s grains as feed with an increase in the incidence of E. coli in the hindguts of cattle.

Another controversial issue may affect the meat supply.  The New York Times reported that immigration officials began a crackdown at slaughterhouses across the country in the fall of 2006.  Experienced—albeit undocumented—workers have been cleared out and replaced with unskilled, inexperienced labor.

And then there’s Darwin.  Another theory holds that interventions have caused the wily E. coli microbes to adapt, selecting pathogens that are more resistant to detection or intervention.  E. coli back in our meat cannot be tolerated.  Summer has always been kind to the E. coli bug.  More than 5.6 million pounds of E. coli contaminated beef has been recalled so far in 2008, most supplied by Nebraska Beef Ltd., via the Kroger Grocery chain.  All of which was responsible for a multi-state outbreak of E. coli that again is filling up the ICU’s in Hospitals in the seven states.

What is being done?  Honestly, not much.  Congress has held some hearings, but the only new reform is that the names of retail stores that received meat and poultry involved in recalls with high health risk will be made public.  Good as far as it goes.

However, despite 76,000,000 American’s being sickened, 325,000 hospitalized and 5,000 deaths each year, food safety did not make it as a Presidential campaign issue.  Congress, Democrats and Republicans, have about run out its clock.  But E. coli is back in our meat and we better care.

Solutions?  Improve surveillance of bacterial and viral diseases. First responders – ER physicians and local doctors – need to be encouraged to test for pathogens and report findings directly to local and state health departments and the CDC promptly. Right now, for every person counted in an outbreak there are some 20 to 40 times those that are sick but never tested. The more we test, the quicker we know we have an outbreak and the quicker it can be stopped.

These same governmental departments, whether local, state or federal, need to learn to “play well together.” Turf battles need to take a back seat to stopping an outbreak and tracking it to its source. That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged so illnesses can be promptly stopped and the offending producer – not an entire industry – are brought to heal.

Require real training and certification of food handlers at restaurants and grocery stores. There also should be incentives for ill employees not to come to work when ill. We should impose fines and penalties on employers who do not cooperate.

Stiffen license requirements for large farm, retail and wholesale food outlets, so that nobody gets a license until they and their employees have shown they understand the hazards and how to avoid them.

Increase food inspections. While domestic production has continued to be a problem, imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists were to get into the act. Points of export and entry are a logical place to step up monitoring. We need more inspectors – domestically and abroad – and we need to require that they receive the training in how to identify and control hazards.

Reorganize federal, state and local food safety agencies to increase cooperation and reduce wasteful overlap and conflicts. Reform federal, state and local agencies to make them more proactive, and less reactive. This too requires financial resources and accountability. We also need to modernize food safety statutes by replacing the existing collection of often conflicting laws and regulation with one uniform food safety law of the highest standard.

There are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

We need to use our technology to make food more traceable so that when an outbreak occurs authorities can quickly identify the source and limit the spread of the contamination and stop the disruption to the economy. When I buy a book on line I can track it all the way to my mailbox.  We must be able to do the same with our food.

Promote university research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination. Provide tax breaks for companies that push food safety interventions and employee training. Greatly expand irradiation of raw hamburger and other high-risk products.

Improve consumer understanding of the risks of food-borne illness. Foster a popular campaign similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which uses consumer power to promote a no-tolerance policy toward growers and companies that produce tainted food.

The time has come to act and not continue simply to react.  Consumers, Farmers, Suppliers, Manufacturers, Retailers, Regulators and Politicians need to work together to make our food supply safe, profitable and sustainable.  When a quarter of our population is sickened yearly by contaminated food, when thousands die, we do not have the “safest food supply in the world.  We should, must and can do better.