September 2015

When Food Companies Put Profits Ahead of Your Safety

Getting dinner ready in my house can be a somewhat complicated business. One of my kids is trying to be a vegan, another wants to eat gluten and lactose-free, another is allergic to strawberries, and I myself am supposed to be watching my calories. So there’s a lot to consider when preparing a family meal, and that’s before we get to everyone’s particular likes and dislikes. The one thing I always took for granted though, was the safety of our food.

Sure, I knew that meats should be cooked to a certain temperature, but otherwise I believed that the food we put on the table was safe to eat. But the more I’ve worked on the issue of food safety, the more I’ve realized that’s not always the case. The food we buy frequently presents danger for our families. Danger that even the most knowledgeable and hygienic of cooks cannot avoid.

Approximately 48 million Americans are sickened by foodborne illnesses every year; 128,000 are hospitalized; and 3,000 die, costing the nation approximately $77 billion.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Even when consumers are made sick by food, the vast majority of cases are never specifically identified - 81 percent of foodborne illnesses remain the product of unknown agents. The vast majority of incidences of what we know colloquially as the stomach flu are actually cases of foodborne illness.

Today AAJ is releasing a new report that shows the scope of this enormous problem, and demonstrates how the civil justice system plays a key roll as consumers’ last line of defense. The civil justice system has proven to be the most effective – and sometimes the only – mechanism for deterring negligent behavior.

The report outlines several instances in which food companies knowingly let Americans eat food contaminated with deadly pathogens. Take, for example, the 2009 peanut scandal, in which executives at the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) knew for at least three years that they had a salmonella problem but put profits ahead of safety and continued to ship their products to unsuspecting consumers. At least ten of those consumers died. The court case would eventually reveal that when employees told PCA President Stewart Parnell of the contamination, he replied “Just ship it,” and in another instance, “turn them loose.” Those products were incorporated into hundreds of products under a wide variety of labels.

The civil justice system has frequently uncovered this kind of pattern of corporations putting profits over safety. This past spring, Blue Bell took its ice cream off grocery shelves for months after three people died from listeria contamination. We now know that Blue Bell was aware that its factories had a listeria problem two years ago in 2013, but did not stop production or issue a recall.

Remarkably, most processed food manufacturing facilities and farms are not regularly visited by federal inspectors. Federal regulators are overwhelmed, and their focus falls on identifying outbreaks after they happen. The civil justice system works to prevent contamination before it happens. During litigation, attorneys frequently use discovery to compel producers, suppliers, buyers, and auditors to disclose inside information, which helps to trace how food was allowed to become contaminated – and to pinpoint the negligent parties. This power stands in stark contrast to that of regulators, who are often restricted to asking the food company for nothing more than a voluntary recall with no admission of negligence.

For food manufacturers, knowing they can be held accountable in court provides significant incentive to improve safety and end dangerous practices. Even the FDA’s highest-ranking food-safety official, Michael Taylor, has described litigation as “a central element of accountability.”

We may not think about the safety of our food regularly, but we are putting an immense trust in the companies that produce what we eat. Too often, they put profits ahead of safety, and we suffer the consequences.

Please learn more by reading our full report!