After a brief lull a few years ago, we’re seeing a sweeping increase in outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli and other food-borne contaminants. There are many reasons for this ugly trend: businesses more focused on sales than safety, fragmented government agencies, inadequate inspection of foods, poorly educated food handlers and lack of consumer awareness, to name a few. The reality is that we now live in a global food supply and we need to come up with global solutions that leverage our scientific and technological capabilities to prevent human illness and death.
I’m a food-borne illness lawyer, but I would be happy to be put out of business; happier still to never have to set foot in a pediatric ICU again. Here are some ideas how:
1. 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.
2. Federal, state and local governmental departments need to learn to “play well together.” That means resources need to be provided and coordination encouraged.
3. Require real training and certification of food handlers at restaurants and grocery stores. There also should be incentives for sick employees to stay home when ill.
4. 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.
5. Reform federal, state and local agencies to make them more proactive, and less reactive. We need to modernize food safety statutes by replacing the existing collection of often conflicting laws and regulation with one uniform food safety law.
6. There are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food in the U.S. We should impose stiff fines and prison sentences for violators and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.
7. Promote university research to develop better technologies to make food safe and for testing foods for contamination.
This may seem like a lot for a busy administration to chew on, but according to the CDC, every year nearly a quarter of our population is sickened, 350,000 hospitalized and 5,000 die, because of what they ate. Many are children. Eaters are also voters — and parents. Our politicians should do the math.