The globalization of food production and distribution has made it so that American consumers can go to their local grocery store and find items from every corner of the world. While many appreciate the diversity and convenience, our food distribution system also makes it easier for more people to get sick—if one batch of bad food is shipped out all around the country, consumers from the east to the west coast may suffer the serious effects of foodborne illnesses, and it becomes difficult for the distributor to recall all the bad units before they do damage. Regardless, it’s the manufacturer’s duty to do everything in their power to stop consumers from purchasing and eating contaminated food, no matter how widespread its distribution.
We’ve seen several major food recalls in the last few weeks alone. Lansal Inc. was recently forced to recall seven tons of their hummus products, which are marketed under the Trader Joe’s and Archer Farms labels, due to fear of Listeria contamination. Listeria is an organism that can cause high fever, headaches, nausea, and muscle aches. There have been fatal cases of Listeria infections, mostly in children and adults over 65.
Just before Memorial Day, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced a recall in nine states (including Florida) for beef that may have been contaminated with E. coli. E. coli causes severe gastrointestinal distress and has symptoms that typically last for three or four days, but the bacteria can be fatal for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune system. The USDA named Gordon Food Service Marketplace and Giorgio’s Italian Delicatessen as two chains in Florida that may have received beef tainted with E. coli, and consumers who bought beef with a production date between March 31st and April 18th are urged to throw the meat out or return it for a refund.
Food Contamination Can Turn into an Epidemic
So far, there have been no reported Listeria infections, as a result, of Lansal Inc.’s hummus—the company voluntarily recalled their product after routine testing turned up traces of Listeria–but eleven people in four different states are suspected to have become ill due to the recalled beef, and the USDA recently expanded their recall to include nearly 2 billion pounds of ground beef. Although it’s unfortunate that even eleven people have become sick, it’s a relatively small scale outbreak compared to some of the major food contamination issues of the last several years.
According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 6 Americans fall ill, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die, as a result, of foodborne diseases every year. One large recall of a popular food product or ingredient can leave hundreds of people sick, and dozens hospitalized.
The largest food recall in the US occurred in 2008, when the Peanut Corporation of America (CPA) issued a warning about millions of dollars’ worth of peanuts and peanut products that were believed to be contaminated with E. coli. The warning, unfortunately, came too late for the more than 700 people across the country who became ill and at least nine people who died after eating the contaminated products.
Massive foodborne illness outbreaks like this should be a wake-up call to those working in the food processing and manufacturing industry. Consumers generally trust that the food available to them at grocery stores and restaurants has been thoroughly inspected to ensure its quality, and not only is food contamination a breach of trust, it’s dangerous to a wide swath of people nationwide.
Food manufacturers should perform standard tests for bacteria and other health-hazards as soon as food arrives at their facility and again when it has been through production. If there is a contaminant, this will help food manufacturers determine whether it’s coming from their own facility or the supplier. Food manufacturers and distributors also need to keep detailed records of both suppliers and recipients so that they can warn consumers of any contaminated products as soon as possible. The industry needs to take all reasonable actions to keep consumers safe, or they risk being liable for releasing a defective product.
What Consumers Can Do to Stay Safe
While it is the responsibility of the food supplier, manufacturer, and distributor to ensure that their product is safe to eat, there are precautions that consumers can take to prevent falling ill when a foodborne disease goes through the supply chain unnoticed.
Check sell-by dates. Some grocery stores will sell food products up to or even after the sell-by date, often putting the sooner-to-expire items at the front of the shelf with the offer of a discount. This can be especially dangerous when it comes to bagged greens, which provide a better environment for E. coli to grow the older they are.
Don’t leave perishables in your cart for too long. If you’re doing a big weekly grocery shopping trip, load up the non-perishable items first and grab perishable items like meat, produce, and dairy last. If you have a long drive home from the grocery store, consider bringing a cooler to stick the perishable items in.
Wash hands while preparing food. You should always wash your hands with soap and warm water before you start preparing food and after handling raw meat or any other animal products. You should also use hot water and soap to wash any cutting boards, kitchen surfaces, or utensils that you used when preparing your food.
Invest in a meat thermometer. If you don’t already own a meat thermometer, it’s well worth purchasing. In order to ensure that you’ve killed any bacteria, check to see that your meat is cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you do suspect that you’ve become sick, as a result, of something you ate, see a doctor as soon as possible. One reason foodborne illnesses are able to become so widespread is because the first few people who become sick do not always recognize that their symptoms are related to contaminated food.
If you or a loved one becomes seriously ill or even have to be hospitalized because of a contaminated food product, you should focus on recovering first, and then contact an injury attorney who has experience with defective product cases. Food manufacturers need to be held to a high standard of safety, and you need to hold them responsible if they caused you to suffer.
About the Author:
Jeffrey Braxton is a trial lawyer in Fort Lauderdale who has devoted his 15-year career to the practice of personal injury law. As lead trial attorney for The Injury Law Firm of South Florida, Jeff has litigated thousands of cases and is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, an exclusive group of attorneys who have resolved cases in excess of one million dollars.