AOL and multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrew Schneider wrote a series of pieces this week about non-E. coli O157s and the effort to declare them adulterants–yet another of my recent projects to pull food safety out of the dark ages.
Schneider also did a bit of a profile on yours truly, which, like most of the dozens published over the years, tends to waiver between “what a great guy” to “what an SOB.” Like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
After every such profile comes a comment from the writer (or other writers) along the lines of “you should write a book” or “I should write a book about you,” neither of which has happened – yet. So, in the interim, I took the time to write this foreword for a food safety text that is coming to a law school near you – sometime:
I admit that I agreed to pen the foreword for this book long before a stack of paper landed on my desk, where it sat for several weeks. It looked too much like the textbooks I was so averse to opening in law school some 25 years ago.
Eventually I started thumbing through some pages. Before traveling to visit a food poison client or speak at a food safety conference, I would grab a chunk of chapters for reading on the plane. Air travel today is not what it used to be. So I found sections like, “Business Risk Exclusion,” “Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety,” or and “Poultry Product Inspection Act” perfect for those long delays in Chicago, Beijing or Atlanta. Also, given the size of my ego, I spent some time looking for references to me. I was pleased to find at least one.
As I waded though less stimulating sections (not whole chapters), I questioned why I had agreed to write the foreword, and why I had been asked in the first place.
It occurred to me that I have been around on the scene since the dawn of foodborne illness litigation as we have come to know it. True, we have suffered foodborne illnesses (food manufacturers might argue that consumers are usually to blame – a.k.a., contributory fault) for as long as we have been eating food. But it was the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 1993 that forced the issue into the open and launched one young lawyer down a new path.
Perhaps it was the size of the outbreak – over 650 sickened, many for life, while four children died – that focused the legal community, the scientists, the media and the politicians on a severe problem that needed a solution. It also helped that in 1993 new forms of media like the Internet and 24-hour cable news enabled people to become even more obsessed with food that, for some, is more pornographic than just an opportunity to gather calories.
By the time I had worked my way through most of this book, I felt as though I was touring the neighborhood where I grew up. A section on damages brought back memories of a little girl I represented early on in my career. She suffered a brain injury, lost her large intestine and had to have a kidney transplant after eating contaminated meat. The causation chapters reminded me of the first time I had to tell a mother I could not legally determine what food item was responsible for her child’s death. I could go on and on. My point is that I have lived every one of the tragic scenarios described in this textbook. Or, I should say, my clients have lived them.
At this point I’ve represented well over tens of thousands of Americans poisoned by food. When I started, foodborne illness was not recognized as an area of expertise in the field of personal injury law. Now there’s a textbook to guide the future generation of lawyers on how to litigate cases. I guess that in itself is evidence of the gravity of the problem.
For those not acquainted with my neighborhood, this book will help you navigate the roads and give suggestions of areas of town to avoid. For those who know the territory, you will see things you never noticed before, things that help explain why certain roads dead-end and why some restaurants are better to avoid.