How to Fight Food Poisoning in the United States


Once again, poisoned food has sickened hundreds of Americans. This time it is 971 in 40 states and Washington, D.C., infected by salmonella in fresh tomatoes (or possibly other produce, as the investigation continues) and nearly 50 in Ohio and Michigan stricken by E. coli in beef.

Tomatoes have been recalled nearly every year for the past 10, with hundreds ill. Since the spring of 2007, more than 30 million pounds of ground beef has been recalled after being linked to illnesses across the country. Not surprising, consumers have lost confidence in the food industry and a government that is supposed to protect them.

After a brief lull a few years ago, we're seeing a stunning increase in outbreaks of foodborne illness. There are many reasons for this disturbing trend, including: poorly regulated businesses more focused on profits than safety; fragmented and underfunded government agencies; inadequate inspection and testing of foods, and lack of consumer awareness.

The reality is that we now are fed by a global food supply, and we need to come up with global solutions that effectively leverage our country's scientific and technological capabilities to prevent this widespread human illness and death.

These outbreaks should be good news to a lawyer like me, because I specialize in representing people sickened by tainted food. But it isn't really -- because it means I'll be seeing more little kids hooked up to kidney dialysis machines, hovering near death, because they ate a tainted burger topped by contaminated tomatoes.

Because I would rather find another line of business, here are some suggestions as to what the next president could do to combat this recurring epidemic:

Improve disease surveillance so we can better identify and trace what foods make people sick. The medical community's frontline needs to be encouraged to routinely test for foodborne pathogens and promptly report findings to local and state health departments and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Government agencies, at all levels, need to learn to "play well together." Turf battles like those we see between state health departments and the U.S. Department of Agriculture need to stop so we can track illness to its source. Without effective traceback, companies are not held responsible and have no incentive to stop selling tainted food.

Increase inspections. While domestic production remains a problem, imports pose an increasing risk, especially if terrorists get into the act. Food must be inspected before it enters our country, and we need more inspectors, better technology and better training to do this effectively.

Reform federal, state and local agencies to be more proactive and less reactive. This will require agencies to be properly funded and also accountable.

Modernize food safety statutes by replacing the present conflicting laws and regulations with one uniform food safety law that puts public safety first.

Increase legal consequences for causing foodborne illness and death. We don't need to impose the death penalty, as China did recently. But we should impose serious consequences for companies that don't do enough to keep their products safe, especially if they are repeat offenders.

Use advanced technology to make food traceable from farm-to-table. Then, when an outbreak occurs, authorities can quickly identify the source, limit the numbers of people injured or killed and stop the disruption to our economy.

Promote university research to develop better technologies to make food safe, and for testing foods for contamination.

Provide tax breaks to companies that push food safety and invest in research and training.

Improve consumer understanding of the risks of foodborne illness.

Perhaps this is all too much to ask the presidential candidates to consider? But the safety of our food supply is not only a political issue, it is a moral one. In America, today, it is indefensible that, according to the CDC, a quarter of our population is sickened annually, 350,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die, because of food. People who eat food and get sick also vote. The presidential candidates should do the math.

William D. Marler is a Seattle trial lawyer.