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Foodborne illnesses cost the United States $77 billion per year.
★ Food Safety Dangers
|Every year, 48 million Americans fall sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and at least 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses. |
And such statistics represent only the tip of the iceberg. For each reported case many more go unreported. Salmonella, for instance, sickens 1 million people, hospitalizes 19,000, and kills nearly 400 every year, yet for every diagnosed case 29 more go undiagnosed. The vast majority of what we know colloquially as “stomach flu” are actually cases of foodborne illness.
★ The $77 Billion Problem
|Foodborne illnesses cost the United States $77 billion per year. |
Unlike traditional animal farms, the industrialized farms, or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), are almost by default heavily susceptible to food safety problems. Factory farms produce vast amounts of waste and feature heavy use of pharmaceuticals in an attempt to both maximize production and thwart the inevitable problems of disease. The overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that are fundamental to industrialized farming significantly increase the chances of bacterial contamination entering the food supply. But what makes an already imperfect situation intolerable are the frequent incidences of reckless negligence by food producers trying to cut corners.
★ The Food Industry’s Failed Promise
The food industry is largely immune to market forces when it comes to safety. There are no consistent market repercussions for food contamination, and thus no economic motivators to keep the promise of safe food, resulting in what economists describe as an “inefficient market.” We have nothing to protect us but our trust in food manufacturers to do the right thing, and when that trust is violated the only true recourse is the civil justice system.
★ Toothless Oversight
Federal oversight of the food industry is both overwhelmed and toothless. Oversight of food providers is fragmented between 15 different federal agencies, but primarily falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Yet even their jurisdictions are fragmented. The FDA covers shelled eggs, but the USDA covers egg products such as liquid eggs. The USDA regulates chicken farms, but the FDA covers the feed on those farms. Sausage meat is regulated by the USDA, but the casings that hold the meat fall under the FDA’s responsibility. The FDA oversees cheese pizza, but the USDA is responsible for pepperoni. Fish falls under FDA jurisdiction, unless it is catfish, which is covered by the USDA.
★ The Civil Justice System as the “Central Element of Accountability” in the Food Chain
The civil justice system is not just the major deterrent to negligent behavior, it also serves as the most effective tool for rooting out systemic problems in the food chain. While regulators’ investigatory efforts are limited to the external factors of the food chain—for instance tracking genetic links between the sick and the food consumed— private attorneys frequently use discovery to compel producers, suppliers, buyers, and auditors to disclose inside information, which helps to trace the specifics of how food was allowed to become contaminated in the first place. Such discovery efforts by attorneys can also pinpoint the negligent parties. This power contrasts with that of regulators, who are often restricted to asking the guilty party for nothing more than a voluntary recall with no admission of negligence. Even regulators themselves recognize the need for private litigation. Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s highest-ranking food safety official, described litigation as “a central element of accountability.”