Most of you likely have not followed the story of 5-year-old Mason Jones, who died of E. coli O157:H7 poisoning in 2005 after eating a school lunch.


I have followed it closely, in part because over the last few years, as I spoke at food safety conferences in Wales and England, Mason’s story was everywhere.  Here in the United States, his death from E. coli O157:H7, like the deaths of countless U.S. children, produces a polite nod, but never a national reaction. Mason’s horrible death has been discussed at length in the United Kingdom for five years.

If his death had happened anywhere here it would have prompted a few news stories, a civil lawsuit, but never five years of national reflection.

Mason’s death from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and the deaths and severe illnesses that occur in the United States yearly, are hard to imagine and more difficult to watch.  Mason was the only one to die, but there were 150 victims of the 2005 outbreak caused by William John Tudor, a butcher who sold contaminated meat.  Tudor, 58, was jailed for a year in September 2007 for “putting unsafe meat on the market.”  

Ask yourself this, how many times in the U.S. has a food producer been fined or jailed for putting unsafe food on the market?  Think hard, because it does not happen.

Other than answer to the lawsuits I bring on behalf of victims and families, companies that do what Mr. Tudor did simply move on, either bankrupt or still in business.  Our government might conduct a show hearing or two on Capitol Hill, but any substantive investigation or prosecution is left to me.  Government, businesses (large and small), and frankly, the public, see a child like Mason as incidental to our desire for cheap food and fat profits.  Remember the oft-used phrase, “We have the safest food supply in the world.”

According to press reports, coroner David Bowen this past week issued a neutral narrative verdict on the death of Mason Jones at an inquest in Newport, Wales.  Despite strong words emphasizing that Mason had died from eating contaminated meat served at school, the coroner said he was unable to record a verdict of unlawful killing. 

The family criticized the coroner’s decision to not rule that Mason was unlawfully killed by eating contaminated meat: “We are extremely disappointed the coroner felt he wasn’t legally able to return a verdict that Mason was unlawfully killed.”  However, Tudor did spend time behind bars.  In the US, he would still be on the golf course.

The coroner did call for stricter food controls, demanding more spot checks on abattoirs and meat factories to prevent another fatality.  He said: “The mechanism for the inspection of food hygiene regulations should be reviewed as a matter of urgency.  Unannounced inspections of abattoirs and premises on which meat is processed should take place more regularly. Compliance with food hygiene regulations should be more strictly enforced.”

Sounds like the complete opposite of what the anti-regulation/Tea Party groups are saying here about any food safety legislation, namely HB 2749 and S 510.  Remember the oft-used phrase, “We have the safest food supply in the world.”  The death of Mason Jones, Wales’s “E. coli Boy,” is still causing anguish across the pond, but not a ripple here.

  • John Munsell

    Mr. Marler’s comments provide us ample fodder to examine America’s existing food safety system, which is in dire need of mid-stream corrections. First of all, let’s examine the final sentence in the next-to-last paragraph above which states “Compliance with food hygiene regulations should be more strictly enforced”. Sounds like an erudite statement Mr. Marler, but your most formidable opponents who adroitly cirvumvent your suggestion are none other than FDA & USDA/FSIS!
    Frankly, deregulation is THE god to which our government pays homage. Why else would FDA “inspect” (now that’s an oxymoron) food facilities as infrequently as once every 5 – 10 years? FDA effectively regulates drugs (in most cases) and medical devices, but has no stomach or interest in monitoring food facilities. Such responsibility needs to be transferred to another agency. How about USDA/FSIS? That would be disastrous!
    FSIS is now a blind adherent to “USDA-style HACCP”, which is not truly HACCP, but an inferior imposter, by intentional agency design. Before FSIS forced the meat industry to implement “USDA-style HACCP”, the agency made the following startling announcements: (1) Under “USDA-style HACCP”, the agency would no longer police the industry, but the industry would be allowed to police itself. (2) Under HACCP, the agency would utilize a “Hands Off” non-role at meat plants. (3) Under HACCP, FSIS would willingly acquiesce its previous command and control authority. Plant owners nationwide, including me, jumped for joy at the prospect of minimized involvment by inspectors. History has since shown that the agency did indeed embrace a “Hands Off” non-involvement role at the largest plants (with big packer endorsement), while the agency simultaneously hyper-regulated small plants, many out of existence. Big packers are STRONG supporters of USDA-style HACCP for this reason, just as the large produce firms support S 510, as both realize that these regulations are effectively eliminating their smaller competitors. Large manufacturers can afford to have full time staffs to fabricate a plethora of daily documents required to comply with federal mandates; small plants cannot, since their owners typically wear multiple hats and lack the time to concoct an avalanche of daily records, MOST OF WHICH HAVE NO CONNECTION TO SAFE FOOD. USDA initially marketed its version of HACCP as a Pathogen Chase, but it quickly degenerated into a Paper Chase. Numerous media, including the Marler blog and Food Safety News have revealed that investigations at large facilities subsequent to outbreaks have exposed that files bulged with all required paperwork, while obvious plant deficiencies persisted. Think of Peanut Corporation of America, Wright County Egg, Nestle Toll House Cookie Dough, and multiple outbreaks caused by contaminated meat which was produced at meat plants which were ostensibly in full compliance with HACCP mandates, while possessing HACCP Plans worthy of a Pulitzer Prize…… science fiction.
    Instead of inspecting meat, FSIS now primarily audits paperwork. FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) should be renamed FSAS (Food Safety AUDITING Service). Heck, consumers don’t eat paperwork; they eat meat! And, can plants prepare falsified daily paperwork? Is the Pope Catholic? This conundrum is much deeper than S 510, which will likely only maintain the current lie we all endorse.
    My point here is that contemporary America is mesmerized with the need for destroying rain forests, which is the natural consequence of requiring an onerus amount of paperwork, much of which is meaningless (but looks good), while government agencies lack the courage to challenge our largest food manufacturers to be liable for food which was contaminated on their premises. Who cares if Peanut Corporation of America had visible cracks in their roofs, allowing rainwater and exterior bacteria access to production lines below? Photos at Wright County Egg facilities in Iowa showed mounds of manure piled up against buildings, forcing doors open, and who cared? Beef slaughter plants are allowed to ship into commerce intact beef cuts which are surface-contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7, which the agency classifies as mere “contaminants” on intact cuts; but when those intact cuts are further processed downline, these previously-existing (and invisible) pathogens magically morph into adulterants. And, hell knows no fury like USDA/FSIS when E.coli-adulterated meat is detected at the victimized downstream DESTINATION facilities. Neither FSIS nor FDA wants the least bit of discomfort which would occur if the agencies were ever audacious enough to attempt meaningful enforcement actions at the large establishments which enjoy political clout and financial wherewithal to engage agencies in litigation. Mr. Marler’s suggestion above that “Compliance with food hygiene regulations should be more strictly enforced” is right on the money, but we must also admit that neither FSIS nor FDA agree. Pathogens are no longer our primary foe here: lazy government bureaucrats are our primary foe, and for good reason. Many of them take early retirements from their agency, and go to work for the very industry they had previously “regulated”. These bureaucrats would be foolish to bite the hands of their future employers.
    Another issue is the determination of who is responsible for foodborne outbreaks. The official FSIS answer is to assess primary liability against the entity closest to the consumer, which sounds lauable at first blush. However, blaming your local Safeway meat dept for sickening consumers also insulates the true source (the slaughter plant) from liability, enjoying total agency endorsement. Egads folks, aren’t we tiring of being played for idiots yet by our government’s allegedly “science based” inspection policies? We will continue to suffer through all these blasted recurring recalls and ongoing outbreaks until we trace back to the SOURCE, and then Force the Source to clean up its act. Even if we successfully close every retail meat market in America, the incidence of outbreaks will continue because the SOURCE slaughter plants continue to fly under the government’s radar, by intentional agency design.
    So, if we want to make food safer, we must first forcibly remove all inspection duties from FSIS & FDA, and give all food inspection duties to one institution which has NO connections with the industries. Secondly, this institution must be required to leave no stones unturned in unrestricted investigations to determine the true SOURCE of contamination. This institution must then proactively Force the Source to implement corrective actions to prevent recurrences. One contemporary success story is that the cheese manufacturer which sold e.coli-contaminated cheese to Costco has recalled all its cheese products, and will shoulder the blame. Why not Costco? Perhaps we are finally learning something here. Costco is but the latest victim of innocently purchasing food which was previously contaminated at its source supplier plant. Are adequate safeguards to address this liability issue built into S 510?
    Reflecting the degree of ignorance existing in me, I was totally deceived by the advance marketing used in the implementation of “USDA-style HACCP”. Now, all of America is being deceived that such HACCP principles should be employed throughout our food chain. We’ve also been duped into thinking that “science”, as defined by our bankrupt government, is the panacea required to promote public health. “USDA-style HACCP” is indeed connected to science, but only via political science and science fiction.
    I’ve concluded that anyone endorsing food safety protocol existing in “USDA-style HACCP” has become an unwitting saboteur of public health. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that anyone endorsing S 510’s focus on paperwork and the ability of FDA and FSIS to adequately INSPECT food likewise joins the rank of unwitting saboteurs.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, MT
    November 28, 2010

  • William J. Manos Ph.D.

    Dear Mr. John Munsell,
    I want to thank you for your impactful article on the status of our tragic food safety system here in the U.S.
    My company and I have been involved in food safety practices for the last 14 years. Mainly with restaurants,hotels,and food processers. The lack of concern regarding food safety practices is frighting. Sure everyone wants the food to be safe but one wants to pay for it. So as they say I’ll take my chances. The chances the inspectors won’t fine the violations or no will report getting sick, and if so the insurance company will handle it.
    I guess I am little concerned here with the death rate at a minimum of 5,000 people and the foodborne illness rate at 76 million every year and rising. You know and I know these numbers are low,
    as stated by CDC themselves.
    Anyway, please feel free to call anytime. It’s very reassuring to know there is someone on our side in the battle of foodborne illness.
    William J. Manos