Most Americans heard about the Salmonella outbreak from Foster Farms chicken in 2013 and 2014. The contamination sickened thousands of people and sent hundreds to the hospital for serious illness. What most Americans do not know is how important food contamination litigation is to keeping our food safe. Salmonella lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm explain exactly how food recalls are conducted in the U.S., and who is holding negligent companies responsible for selling unsafe food.
Experts estimate that, for every reported case of foodborne illness, about 28 go unreported. About 690 people reported Salmonella sickness from the Foster Farms chicken, meaning the outbreak actually affected as many as 18,000 people. Fortunately, no deaths were reported, but there were immense losses from the outbreak for thousands of families.
Victims of food contamination – whether it is Salmonella, Listeria, E.coli, or any other contaminant – suffer a myriad of ailments, from organ failure to paralysis. In more serious cases, victims can be hospitalized for months and never fully recover from the infection.
As System of Epidemics
Every year, tens of millions of Americans are sickened, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and about 3,000 die from contaminated food. Most of the bacterium and viruses that infect our food is potentially lethal, particularly for the elderly, infants, and those with compromised immune systems. Salmonella kills more people than any other foodborne pathogen, as an increasing number of strains are becoming drug-resistant.
This may not be news to some readers; most Americans know that certain levels of salmonella contamination are permitted in the U.S. food supply. Most people do not know exactly how the food recall system works, who it is run by, and what incentives food companies have to keep our food safe.
When an foodborne outbreak occurs, identifying the source is relatively simple with modern technology. Stopping the outbreak, however, is much more complicated, and falls on the shoulders of the U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The FSIS does not have power to force food recalls – they can only ask companies to voluntarily remove the product. And they can only ask companies for a voluntary recall if they have definitive proof that the meat is making consumers sick, by genetic matching between a victims’ salmonella and the salmonella in packaged meat. The meat still has to be in the victims’ possession, with the labels still attached.
Obviously, this makes recalls difficult to come by, even when the government knows that a certain company’s food is making people sick. In the Foster Farms case, FSIS officials were not able to request a recall until more than a year after the outbreak began.
Food safety in the U.S. is a complex (and, many argue, broken) system: responsibility is divided among 15 federal agencies, consumer watchdog groups, food industry, and legal enforcement. Unfortunately, the legal side of the system, meaning the injury lawsuits that are filed after-the-fact, is the only part of the system that functions properly, actually incentivizing companies to sell safe food.
How Filing a Lawsuit Helps Change the System
Lawsuits are major players in changing food safety policy in ways that government, industry, and consumer groups cannot. The costs handed down by judges and juries are the strongest penalties food companies are subjected to, stronger than any regulation. The government cannot even mandate a food recall. When regulation fails (as it does, time and time again), litigation is the only way food companies are held accountable.
Take, for example, one of the largest food-poisoning claims in U.S. history, which occurred in the 90s against Jack in the Box. By cutting corners, not cooking food properly, and ignoring state guidelines, the fast food chain sold E.coli-contaminated burgers to consumers, killing four children, and sickening hundreds of others. Jack in the Box ultimately agreed to more than $50 million in settlements, $15.6 million of which went to a ten-year-old girl who spent 40 days in a coma.
Another example was the 2011 Listeria outbreak from cantaloupe farmed in Colorado. At least 33 people died from Listeria, which contaminated the cantaloupes when they were washed with tap water at the manufacturing plant instead of the FDA-recommended antimicrobial solution. Dozens of victims filed suit, not only against the Colorado farm, but also against retailers like Kroger and Walmart, and the private company that reviewed the farm’s safety practices, PrimusLabs.
Most food products are inspected by private companies like PrimusLabs, which had actually been inside the cantaloupe plant a few days before the first contaminated fruits were shipped out. Despite the lack of antimicrobial solution, PrimusLabs gave the facility a score of 96%. Because the lab is a private company hired by another private company, PrimusLabs has tried and failed many times to have the case dismissed. Primus claims its only legal responsibility was to the companies it worked for, not the consumer.
At the end of the day, all parties responsible for the safety of the food industry must be held accountable for any negligence. Filing a lawsuit is by far the most effective and efficient way of getting compensation for your injuries and sending a message that safety should come before profits. Our team of food contamination lawyers is currently investigating cases of serious illness and death from unsafe foods. Contact our firm now with any questions or concerns, our legal consultations are always completely free.