September was “Food Safety Month.” Sadly, by month’s end, hundreds of people had suffered devastating injuries, or died, in two of the biggest outbreaks of foodborne disease that we have seen in years, one involving spinach from California’s Salinas Valley, and the other tomatoes from the Southeast. Now, when we thought that the worst was over, we’re in the midst of another E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, the scope of which may exceed the tallies of the previous outbreaks combined. Circumstances have never been more ripe for change, and the federal Congress is the only body with the means to effect it.
As if the events of the last three months were not enough to warrant action, it must be recognized that the produce and restaurant industries have had plenty of notice of continuing problems through a sad litany of similar outbreaks. In 2000, Taco Bell food was to blame for a hepatitis A outbreak involving green onions. In 2003, green onions were yet again implicated in a Pennsylvania outbreak that left over 600 sick with hepatitis A, causing at least four deaths and one liver transplant. In 2004, salmonella-tainted tomatoes, again grown in the Southeast, sickened 450 people who had eaten at convenience stores in the Northeast. And in 2005, Dole lettuce caused dozens more E. coli illnesses, including one young girl who suffered acute kidney failure. The 2005 Dole outbreak was the nineteenth E. coli O157:H7 outbreak tied to spinach or lettuce since 1995. In those previous outbreaks, nearly 500 were sickened and two elderly women died.
Seeing these sobering statistics, one would think that Congress would have acted long ago to force change in the produce industry. Inexplicably, however, Congress has remained virtually silent, apparently willing to sit by and watch American consumers suffer because they have heeded their mothers’ advice and eat their vegetables. It is high time for Congress to accept its proper role in the lives of American citizens and hold hearings involving all aspects of the produce industry, farm to table.
Congress should invite growers, producers, manufacturers, restaurants, grocers, and consumers to participate in a discussion about:
1. The science behind how these recent outbreaks actually happened and what can be done to prevent or limit the next one.
2. How to increase funding for university-based research, health department epidemiological surveillance, and prevention of bacterial and viral contamination.
3. Pre-consumption bacterial and viral testing of raw food products, especially those where no “kill step” is expected.
4. Making mandatory good agricultural and food handling practices.
5. Reviewing the proposal to create a single federal agency charged with ensuring the nation’s food safety.
Answers may prove hard to come by, and true solutions to the problem even harder. This is not a reason, however, to merely accept the status quo. Quite literally, too many people’s lives are at stake to remain passive any longer. Congressional attention on the problem is the only realistic option because, unfortunately, the produce industry is either unable or unwilling to police itself. Bringing all of the parties to the table, so to speak, is the only way to figure out why our produce is so unsafe and, more importantly, what needs to be done to stop the next national outbreak from happening.
William Marler is the managing partner in the law firm Marler Clark L.L.P., P.S. Since 1993, Mr. Marler has represented thousands of victims of E. coli, Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Listeria, Shigella, Campylobacter and Norovirus illnesses in over forty States.