report released Wednesday by the American Association for Justice argues that the civil justice system is better at getting the food industry to ensure the safety of their products than foodborne illnesses. About 80 percent of foodborne illnesses are never connected to their cause. The AAJ report says this means “no consistent market repercussions for food companies … and no economic motivators to keep the promise of safe food.” The responsibility for safety then shifts onto state and federal regulators, but they don’t have the resources to police everything. So “it has fallen to the civil justice system to protect consumers,” wrote the report’s author, David Ratcliff. “Lawsuits have proven to be the most effective, and sometimes the only, mechanism for deterring negligent behavior and rooting out systemic problems in the food chain.” Private attorneys are able to use discovery to get inside information that public health investigators aren’t able to use to connect those sickened to a specific food. And when the media pick up on the details of negligence exposed in litigation, it heightens the awareness of food safety. Much of the AAJ report is a summary of the dangers and scope of foodborne illnesses, describing the top 10 worst outbreaks and regulatory controversies, such as the New Poultry Inspection System and which pathogens are declared adulterants. It doesn’t introduce any new analysis of legislation, industry or research, but Ratcliff says its purpose is more about education since food safety doesn’t get the level of public attention that it should. “To get it all in one place is helpful,” he said during a call with reporters. “When you put it all together, there is something somewhat shocking to see these numbers.” The numbers he refers to are the 48 million people sickened, 128,000 hospitalized, and 3,000 killed by foodborne illnesses each year, costing the U.S. approximately $77 billion. The report ends with a list of things we can do to reduce foodborne illnesses. Congress can make multi-drug-resistant Salmonella strains adulterants and create a single food safety agency. On the call with reporters, Ratcliff also noted the need for full funding of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Industry can implement random testing of their products and vaccinate herds. And consumers should wash their hands, cook meat and eggs to the recommended safe internal temperatures, avoid cross-contamination and clean sponges daily. Ultimately, foodborne illness is misunderstood, the report stated, “[a]nd despite the attention brought by high-profile outbreaks, the landscape of food safety in the United States is in danger of becoming far worse.” (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)