Unless you or a member of your family have been struck down by a foodborne illness, you won’t know the facts about food poisoning and the law. Public reaction to a recent case of Salmonella food poisoning has made this very clear.
Many people think that food poisoning just means an uncomfortable period of time spent running to the bathroom. For most people, this is true, since 48,000,000 Americans contract food poisoning every year. But for more than 128,000 Americans each and every year, food poisoning means hospitalization, a serious illness, and the risk of developing lifelong health complications including paralysis, kidney failure, arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. And for 3,000 Americans each year, food poisoning means a painful and untimely death.
Food Safety Laws
The government has established laws about the safety of the food we eat, the water we drink, and the food we feed our pets to help prevent foodborne illness. But corporations violate those laws and produce unsafe food every year.
It is illegal to sell certain food products contaminated with certain bacteria. Manufacturers are not allowed to sell beef contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, ready-to-eat foods contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, and ready-to-eat-foods contaminated with Salmonella. But it’s perfectly legal to sell foods contaminated with all other dangerous pathogens. Until someone gets sick from those bacteria in that product. Then the product is considered adulterated and selling it becomes illegal.
The Science of Epidemiology
Certain bacterial infections must be reported to authorities when they are diagnosed by doctors. And when two or more unrelated people are diagnosed with infections caused by the same strain of bacteria, an outbreak is declared and authorities begin investigating.
Laws requiring companies to keep records of the food they produce help the government trace the bacteria to a specific food and manufacturer or producer. In fact, the science of epidemiology is so advanced that public health officials can often trace the bacteria to a particular farm field.
Once the source of food poisoning is found, scientists conduct tests on the bacteria cultured from the patient and bacteria found in the food and/or at the facility where the food was produced. Pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), the gold standard test in epidemiology, can map the bacteria’s DNA. When the DNA in bacteria from a stool culture matches the DNA in bacteria taken from the food or food facility, officials have medical, biological, epidemiological, and legal proof that that particular food caused the illness.
Facts About Food Poisoning and Cross-Contamination
Victims do not have to ingest that specific food to be infected by dangerous pathogens in it. Cross-contamination is a common cause of foodborne illness. It is literally impossible to prevent cross-contamination simply because bacteria are so incredibly tiny; each is about 0.002 microns.
Pathogenic bacteria are colorless, tasteless, and odorless. The infectious dose, especially for children, is extremely small. For this reason, once these bacteria are introduced into the home environment they poses a very significant risk no matter how carefully you handle the food itself. If you wash a contaminated food and one drop splatters onto the countertop, and that drop contains bacteria, it can contaminate anything that later touches that countertop.
No house, restaurant, or facility can ever be cleaned well enough to get rid of dangerous pathogens introduced by contaminated food. Cross-contamination can be as simple as a pet, who ate adulterated food and is now a perfectly healthy carrier of bacteria, walking across a carpet. If a child sits on that carpet and touches his mouth, or another person pets the animal and touches the child, he can become sick from that bacteria.
Bacteria can also become aerosolized and float through the air. That is why negligent manufacturers are held responsible when dangerous bacteria are introduced into a product and make their way into homes.
Facts About Food Poisoning and the Law
Victims of foodborne illness and their families often sue the manufacturer who produced the adulterated food, and anyone in the chain of command who handled or sold the food. This is the only recourse these people have against huge multinational corporations.
Medical bills from foodborne illness can skyrocket into millions of dollars very quickly. No one who sues after a serious foodborne illness is in it for a paycheck. Complications from foodborne illness can bankrupt a family, cause lifelong health problems, and inflict severe emotional distress.
After a foodborne illness, a patient’s lifespan can be shortened, and he may have serious physical complications that restrict his life until he dies. Some patients will never fulfill their innate abilities and role in society. In a democracy, a lawsuit filed by injured individuals is a critical check on corporations to make sure they follow the law of the land.
And now you know the facts about food poisoning and the law.