I was sitting in my office in Seattle watching the snowfall on this St. Patrick’s Day, while working on one of the latest food disasters, when the staff at Food Safety News reminded me that my “Publisher’s Platform” was due. After spending most of my day reading about the horrible illnesses and deaths caused by eating Listeria cantaloupes, I honestly needed something a bit more positive to write about.
For those who have known me for sometime you have often heard me say: “put me out of business.” But, I doubt most know when I first said it. It was in an Op-ed in the Denver Post on August 4, 2002, entitled, “Four steps to safer food.” Here it is in full:
This summer, scores of Americans, most of them small children or senior citizens, have already or will become deathly ill after eating ground beef boldly labeled “USDA approved.”
The now infamous ConAgra case started with a few sick kids in Colorado and quickly spread coast-to-coast, eventually triggering the recall of 18 million pounds of ground beef tainted with E. coli.
Now we know that this recall came weeks late, after most of that meat had been consumed by innocent consumers from Washington State to New Jersey. Because they trusted government’s food inspections, several kids suffered kidney failure and spent days or weeks hooked up to kidney dialysis machines. For some, the long-term prognosis is grim, with the risk of further kidney failure, dialysis, transplants or worse. I know this because I am a trial lawyer who has built a practice on food pathogens. Many of those kids’ parents have hired me to help them get compensation for hundreds of thousands in medical costs. Which may prompt some readers to consider me a blood-sucking ambulance chaser who exploits other people’s personal tragedies.
If that’s the case, here’s my plea:
Put me out of business. Please.
For this trial lawyer, E. coli has been a successful practice – and a heart-breaking one. I’m tired of visiting with horribly sick kids who did not have to be sick in the first place. I’m outraged with a food industry that allows E. coli and other poisons to reach consumers, and a federal regulatory system that does nothing about it.
Stop making kids sick – and I’ll happily move on. Here’s how:
Actually inspect and sample food. At present, the U.S. Department of Agriculture employs thousands of inspectors across the nation to inspect hundreds of plants that produce millions of pounds of beef at processing plants and retail outlets. The General Accounting Office has warned that the USDA’s food samplings are so scattered and infrequent that there is little chance of detecting microscopic E. coli or any other pathogen.
So hire more inspectors and give them real authority to sample meat and stop its distribution as soon as a pathogen is detected. Implement a sampling system that provides a reasonable chance of preventing another outbreak.
Doing so might add a nickel a pound – maybe less – to the price of hamburger. But it will also cut into my business. And isn’t that the idea?
Consider mandatory recall authority. This authority was required in Sen. Tom Harkin’s Safer Meat, Poultry and Foods Act of 2002. Under the present system of voluntary recalls, no company has actually refused to recall contaminated product. But in its recent report, the GAO did document several instances where companies delayed complying with recall requests. Delays mean tainted product has more time to reach consumers.
Require the meat industry to document where specific lots of food are sold. That way, it can be recalled quickly if a pathogen is detected. In most E. coli outbreaks, there is no recall because retailers don’t know where the meat came from and processors rarely step forward. ConAgra deserves credit for owning up to its responsibility to track down as much of the tainted meat as possible and for covering the medical costs of its victims.
But ConAgra is the exception. Timely online records would allow meat to be efficiently tracked down and recalled as soon as inspectors get a positive test result. Those plastic club cards issued by grocery chains could enable stores to contact specific individuals who have bought suspect ground beef. Merge the two federal agencies responsible for food safety. Right now USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service and the inspection arm of the Food and Drug Administration share this mission. The system is bifurcated, which leads to turf wars and split responsibilities. We need one independent agency that deals with food-borne pathogens.
None of this will stop E. coli entirely. This invisible poison has been around a long time and is bound to pop up again. But these steps will enable us to detect it far more quickly, to alert stores and families, and to keep our most vulnerable citizens – kids and seniors – out of harm’s way. And, with a little luck, it will force one more damn trial lawyer to find another line of work.
Fact: E. coli O157:H7 cases were down 44% in 2010 compared to 1996-1998. See, Vital Signs: Incidence and Trends of Infection with Pathogens Transmitted Commonly Through Food — Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, 10 U.S. Sites, 1996–2010.
I sit here now working on the cases of two 80 plus year olds, who fought in World War II, (splitting three purple hearts between them – coming home as heroes) who got married, who raised families and who then died from eating cantaloupes tainted with Listeria.
In years past, my Saturday would have been focused on a 5-year-old who had died or suffered from acute kidney failure (hemolytic uremic syndrome – HUS) due to E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger. From 1993 though 2003, most of my firm’s revenue was directly related to E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger. That has changed and changed for the better.
To the beef industry — yes, including those who sell “pink slime” — thank you for meeting my challenge. That being said, there is still much the industry can do. Shiga-toxin producing E. coli will always be an issue, and antibiotic resistant Salmonella, and other bad bugs we do not even know about lurk around the corner. The industry cannot let up. Even with the success there still have been people like Stephanie Smith and Abby Fenstermaker who remind you the battle will likely always have to be fought.
However, to the beef industry, take some solace that you have been doing a far better job on food safety — and doing really well not putting money in my pocket.
Well, back to cantaloupe.