Every year, 48 million people fall sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and at least 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses, costing the nation approximately $77 billion. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, as for each reported case many more go unreported.
When food companies put profits before safety, and regulations are unable to force change, the civil justice system works to protect consumers. Lawsuits have proven to be the most effective, and sometimes the only, mechanism for deterring negligent behavior and rooting out systemic problems in the food chain.
A Growing Problem
Foodborne illnesses may only get worse as giant food companies are increasingly instituting industrialized farming strategies that render our food supply heavily susceptible to contamination. Factory farms’ intensive use of pharmaceuticals in livestock is associated with the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” and the vast amounts of waste produced contaminates groundwater and nearby crops to the extent that leafy green vegetables like spinach and lettuce are now the second-most frequent cause of food-related hospitalizations and the fifth-most frequent cause of food contamination death.
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. Thus there are no consistent market repercussions for food companies that allow their products to become contaminated, and no economic motivators to keep the promise of safe food. This “inefficient market” places the burden of keeping the food supply safe with regulators. Yet state and federal regulators have found themselves both overwhelmed and toothless in the face of industry power.
- Every year, 48 million people fall sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and at least 3,000 die from foodborne illness. [CDC]
- Foodborne illnesses cost the nation approximately $77 billion per year. [Journal of Food Protection]
- In a survey of 1,700 individuals working on food safety at all levels in the FDA and USDA, 38 percent of respondents said public health has been hurt by businesses influencing food safety policy at the two agencies. [Union of Concerned Scientists]
- An empirical study found that litigation provided significant incentives toward food safety and deterrents against negligent conduct. [Houston Law Review]