Our editors met this past week in Chicago in conjunction with the American Conference Institute’s Foodborne Illness Litigation event.  

It was the second year we’ve done this, and this time there seemed to be more buzz in the air from the nation’s plaintiff and defense attorneys who practice foodborne illness law.

When you talk about the “buzz” in the air and “feelings” at a conference, you are really being subjective.  I know that.  

But let me speculate on why there might be something to it. 

In the days leading up to the event, which is co-chaired by defense attorney Alan Maxwell and plaintiff’s counsel Bill Marler, several food operations were closed down by various government actions, and others were targets of raids led by armed U.S. Marshals.

All this activity started in mid-October when USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service ordered Tyson’s to suspend operations at its ready-to-eat meat plant in Buffalo, NY. 

Then came the order by the state of Texas, shutting down SanGar Produce and Processing in San Antonio.  The “raid” of the Estrella Family Creamy in Washington state followed.  All of its cheese products were seized, at a minimum resulting in a major disruption of the family business.

There were some other seizures, including one that took $700,000 worth of rice out of a rat-infested Georgia warehouse. 

While actions that actually close down a food processing plant, putting people out of work, are rare, there is nothing about the recent string of  regulatory measures that provides a unifying theme.  

There is stepped-up awareness and action of Listeria, a common thread for the Tyson ready-to-eat meats plant in Buffalo, SanGar Produce in Texas, and Estrella Creamery in Washington state.   But these actions did not involve the same agencies, the same approach or even similar outcomes.

We just considered it interesting that events conspired to give the lawyers a lot to talk about.

When curiosity waned over harsh enforcement actions, the lawyers could always kick around industry news, some of which is also creating a buzz.

For example, has Fresh Express, in rolling out its new pathogen-fighting rinse, broken some kind of a produce industry agreement not to use food safety as a method of gaining special favor with consumers?

That issue was the topic of a column by Greg Johnson, editor of the Packer, which is getting a lot of attention both inside and outside the produce industry.

“Food safety should never be a competitive advantage,” said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association.  “If a new product improves food safety, we should share it with the whole industry.”

Fresh Express says it wants the new rinse tested and shared, so my guess is that the produce industry will continue to move pretty much at the same time on such things.   It is always interesting, however, when there is talk of using food safety as a product advantage.

For our part, your Food Safety News team used three days in Chicago to get back on the same page.  It is that point in the year when we start looking back at what we consider to have been the important stories for 2010, and what we think we should be making in the way of predictions for 2011.

Lots of fun lies ahead, and “the buzz” continues to be fun!