I have now been involved in over 60 investigations of foodborne illness as an expert, on the sides of both plaintiffs and defendants. Some reflections:

1. Most outbreaks that result in lawsuits have evidence of multiple major sanitation deficiencies

2. Most have pest problems as part of the documentation

3. Many have serious time and temperature issues

4. Many have personal hygiene issues

It seems like to have an outbreak that results in a lawsuit requires a lot of negligence. It is usually not some failure at a Critical Control Point (CCP), or an invalid Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan due to some error in thinking.

It’s gross sanitation issues that put people in this spot more often than not.

Those that have at least a semi-scientific program with oversight of any type and are managing basic sanitation adequately seem less likely to get into deep trouble with litigation, and if they do, there is less likely to be a smoking gun.


Roy Costa’s “Reflections on Outbreaks” first appeared Feb. 16, 2011 on his Food Safety & Environmental Health Blog.   See www.haccpprinciples.com for more information on Costa’s work and food safety education programs.

  • jeaniebug

    Legendary Dr. Frank Bryan of the CDC said the same thing after many years of CDC investigations: “When you have a foodborne outbreak, more than one thing went wrong.” I am a health inspector and I teach food safety classes. I use his quote in my PowerPoint presentations.
    You pointed out that those who manage basic sanitation are less likely to get in deep trouble with litigation. That is something I will point out to my next class. Thanks!

  • Doc Mudd

    An excellent article written from common sense and practical experience!
    There really is no such thing as an “accident”, only a tragic series of avoidable mistakes. Especially when it comes to food safety.
    Personal responsibility and accountability on the part of the producer/vendor are central to safe food production.