The American Association for Justice held a press conference today on the importance of litigation in food safety. The civil justice system is one of the last resources consumers have to protect themselves against contaminated foods put into commerce by big business. Lawsuits are “sometimes the only mechanism for deterring negligent behavior and rooting out systemic problems in the food chain,” according to the report, Food Safety and the Civil Justice System.
In June of 2012, John McKissick ate soft cheese that was imported into the United States from Italy. He got very sick with listeriosis and was hospitalized for months. For most of that time, he was unconscious and suffered from hallucinations and sepsis.
His wife Pat contacted our law firm, which underwrites Food Poisoning Bulletin, to represent the family. At the press conference, Pat said, “John was unconscious, intubated, his blood pressure spiked, he had small strokes, and sepsis. We hired attorneys Fred Pritzker and Brendan Flaherty, who carried John and me through these months of fear.
“They found out through their investigation how John got sick, and where the contamination happened. Fred Pritzker himself knew more about Listeria than anyone in the medical field and anyone we came into contact with. We faced mounting medical costs, and our quality of life completely changed. We faced an uncertain future. We are grateful that we had a good lawyer on our side, and we decided that we would go forth with the lawsuit in September 2012. We are glad we did.
“After the settlement, our efforts have involved issues of food safety. We have been to FDA meetings, interviewed, and have been quoted in articles in journals. We are busy trying to contact members of Congress to move quickly to fund FDA and what they are trying to do in the line of prevention of our food safety. This is a matter of national security.”
Noted attorney Fred Pritzker said, “The system of food regulation in this country is cumbersome and antiquated. It’s also underfunded. And there’s too much deference given to food companies at the expense of consumer safety. In too many outbreak cases, the fault of the processor is often abetted by the systemic failures of our food safety system. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘We have the safest food in the world.’ Tell that to the tens of thousands of people sickened and killed each year by food poisoning.”
Brendan Flaherty, one of the experienced attorneys who represented the McKissicks, said, “What the McKissick’s case shows is that regulatory gaps and loopholes have a very real human cost. By litigating their case and speaking out about their story, they are pushing policy makers to make our food supply better and safer.”
Unfortunately, most consumers do not know the full scope of food poisoning issues in this country. According to the American Association for Justice report released today, 48,000,000 Americans are sickened with food poisoning every year. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and at least 3,000 people die from these infections. For every reported case, dozens more go unreported. The conservative cost estimate for these illnesses is $77 billion a year. Civil litigation is the most important way to expose the problems in our food industry and may be the only way to help solve this issue.
David Ratcliff, researcher at AAJ, said in the press conference that most businesses are not regularly visited by inspectors. Inspections happen most often after an outbreak occurs. Litigation helps uncover inside information about the workings of these huge corporations. Holding them accountable in court helps promote food safety.
Jessica Culpepper, a food safety and health attorney with Public Justice, said in the conference that the way animals are being raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is part of the problem. Horrific conditions, too much crowding, and too much waste makes animals sick, and then “the diseased product ends up in the consumer production line.”
She also said that companies profiting from this system maximize their profits by passing costs on to the consumer. And the problem goes well beyond crowded feedlots. For instance, contaminated manure ends up in the groundwater, then it contaminates the lettuce you may eat for dinner. More regulation is needed at plants and at factory farms to address this issue.
Food Poisoning Bulletin asked if there was a way to make this issue, which affects all Americans, more prominent in the coming national elections. Mr. McKissick said, “one of the issues is making sure FDA has adequate funding for implementation of FSMA. The law is in place, but if extensive testing isn’t carried out, or the government doesn’t have the muscle to make producers get into line, it doesn’t work. Candidates should be challenged to discuss what they are doing for food safety.
“This affects everyone. Something has to be done to make sure that we don’t leave ourselves vulnerable to this. We are all vulnerable because we all eat.
“When we [the McKissicks] were at the FDA in April, we heard so much about the dangers of imported foods and things we all consider safe, such as imported cheeses from Italy. There needs to be more money spent on food safety.”
The FDA and USDA share oversight of our food system, which is woefully inadequate. President Obama has requested $109 million for funding the Food Safety Modernization Act for FY 2016. Congress is approving only $40 million.
Ms. Culpepper added, “The press needs to be involved. This issue is presented as the responsibility of the consumer to protect themselves. Why is industry maximizing profit over public health?”