The documentary “Poisoned,” inspired by the book of the same name, is trending world-wide on Netflix after its release on August 2. People, a.k.a., voters, are paying attention. It is time for politicians, regardless of party, to do the same. I urge all people who seek public office – especially the current President and members of the House and Senate – to watch the film and hear the stories of the victims of foodborne illness – they could be members of your family or the voters you desire.
It is time to act.
With the CDC estimating 48,000,000 are sickened each year, 125,000 hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food, preventing pathogenic foodborne illness is no simple matter. And, if you consider the millions that are impacted by the lack of adequate and safe nutrition, we have a lot to do. However, it can be done, and here are a few ideas to make a small start.
Vaccinate. The first thing I would do is mandate that all food service workers be vaccinated against hepatitis A. Perhaps to some, not the most pressing food safety issue, but it is forefront of my mind. In the past few months, I finished up litigation around a hepatitis A outbreak involving one ill food service work who infected nearly 50 people, hospitalizing most, killing four and causing two liver transplants. With regret, I forced a family-owned restaurant chain to file for bankruptcy. All of this could have been prevented by a safe vaccine that has been around for decades. It is time for the restaurant industry and the CDC to step up.
Determinate. Do science-based testing of food products at retail and publish the finding on a regular basis. It is time to shine some light on the safety of the products that we purchase at retail and make the whole chain of distribution – including retailers transparent and accountable. It is time to bring back a more robust version of the Microbiological Data Program (MDP). For a time, the MDP tested fresh fruits and vegetable for human pathogens and when found the tests prompted outbreak investigations and recalls. The industry embarrassed, had the program killed.
Investigate. Invest in public health surveillance over human pathogens, like, Listeria, E. coli and Salmonella, etc. A dirty truth is that most culture-confirmed illnesses are never attributable to a food source, so people never know what sickened or killed them. Not because the source was not food, but because we fail to invest adequate resources in the epidemiologists that investigate illnesses and track those illnesses to the cause. Tracking illnesses to the cause gets tainted product off the market and helps us all understand what products and producers to avoid. We need to continue to invest in the science of whole genome sequencing, so we know with certainty which pathogens are causing which illnesses. Foodborne illness epidemiology helps us understand the root cause of an outbreak and helps prevent the next one from happening at all.
Relegate. Allow public health officials access, especially during an outbreak investigation, to all areas around farms that grow fruits and vegetables. It is long past time to allow investigators access to neighboring cattle, dairy, chicken, or hog operations that spill billions of deadly pathogens into the environment, via air or water. We need to think of our growing regions as an integrated system and that all sectors responsible need to play a role. Access allows investigators to understand the likely cause of an outbreak, and again, what can be done to prevent the next one.
Advocate. Make all pathogens that can sicken or kill us adulterants. In 1994 Mike Taylor making E. coli O157:H7 and adulterant has saved countless lives and has saved the beef industry from my lawsuits. We can do the same for all food producers, especially chicken, turkey, and pork. Remember, in the 1990’s nearly all the lawsuits I filed were E. coli cases linked to ground beef. Today that is zero. Think about it.
Educate. Give everyone a thermometer and provide better education to middle and high school teachers and students around food safety and human nutrition policy, not in a dry, technical way, but by sharing engaging history, microbiology, patient stories, and case studies. We need to teach how and why our food can be unsafe and what consumers can do about it.
Consolidate. Finally, make a single federal agency out of USDA/FSIS, FDA, and the food safety parts of CDC, NOAA, and EPA, to oversee food safety and human nutrition. Making food safety and human nutrition its own agency would help increase governmental accountability, close regulatory loopholes, facilitate the collection and sharing of information and facilitate critical change. I might have a suggestion for someone to run it.
Protecting our food supply is good for consumers and for business. Safe food is good policy and good politics. It is past time for politicians to get off the sidelines and do something.