Playing with our food: Poor food industry processes endanger lives

Playing with our food: Poor food industry processes endanger lives

Implicitly and routinely trusting food product processors and providers has had fatal consequences for many U.S. citizens each and every year.

Salmonella organism under the microscope. (Image via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, November 8, 2015 − Food gives joy to the world. It is our primary source of nourishment. It can also kill. A meal will often be a combination of more than a dozen ingredients, all from different sources. Trusting every one of the providers of these food products implicitly has had fatal consequences for many individuals every year.

Every year, according to a 2014 Consumer Reports study, 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and at least 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses, costing the nation approximately $77 billion in medical care and a concurrent loss of worker productivity. These statistics are not truly representative, however, as many more illnesses go unreported.

Salmonella, for example, annually causes upwards of 1 million illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations and 400 deaths. It is estimated that for every salmonella illness reported, there are 29 that are not reported.

There are a host of reasons why food illness problems persist even today.

Industrialized farming strategies

Industrialized farming strategies are the first serious problem requiring examination. The general aim of these strategies is to streamline food production processes faster, more efficient and thus more profitable.

The most obvious and currently the most controversial of these processes is the use of drugs to promote more rapid animal growth and improve feeding efficiency.

Controversy has always surrounded the use of drugs in animals that are raised for food. The concerns were, and still are, an increased risks of illness in humans. The use of drugs in food animal production and drug residues that remain in food products increase these risks. Further, there has been increasing concern that continued routine use of antibiotics in animals creates a bacterial resistance to the drugs employed. That resistance can in turn show up in similar human infections and illnesses, ultimately making those infections more difficult to treat with current antibiotic regimens.

Yet in spite of this known risk, more and more large food companies are routinely using antibiotic drugs as prophylactics in livestock. Evidence is clear that such use is indeed creating antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” meaning the germs in livestock are not being eradicated. Worse, when transmitted to humans, these evolved or mutated diseases are more difficult to treat.

The problem goes beyond what is being fed or injected into food animals. Livestock waste from farms to feedlots can and does enter the ecosystem on a massive scale, contaminating groundwater and, on occasion,  nearby crops as well. In turn, this animal waste can pass both standard and drug-resistent micro-organisms on to crops such as spinach and lettuce. As a result, not surprisingly, spinach and lettuce are the second most frequent cause of food-related hospitalizations and the fifth most frequent cause of deaths arising from contaminated food.

Another example of today’s more efficient industrialized farming strategies is the poultry industry. The speed of production lines that process chickens and turkeys is constantly increasing, leaving little if any margin for error and negatively affecting the safety of the packaged product.

The problems here are many and run the gamut. Birds are often unintentionally being boiled alive. Indeed, the speed of production lines often lacks a process to assure that the birds are killed humanely and that their blood is drained. Bacteria in the blood often remains in the packaged end product, and that blood can also disguise the presence of disease.

In addition, increased line speed further makes it difficult if not impossible,for inspectors to spot problems with processed animals before packaging and sale. Such problems include bruises, blisters and broken bones, as well as concurrent difficulties in detecting the presence of diseases and fecal contamination of the product.

Industrialized processes elevate corporate profit over food safety.

The issue of how to treat foodborne illnesses in humans is another serious problem. Proper treatment of such illnesses is often delayed or missed completely because the source of the illness in 81 percent of foodborne illnesses ultimately remains unknown.

Ironically, it is for precisely this reason that food companies have no economic reason to be concerned that their food products may be contaminated. The odds are long that contaminated food products can be reliably traced back to the real source. This lands the issue at the foot of the food regulators.

This brings us to our second major problem: Federal and state regulators are severely overworked and underfunded. When and if they find violations, there are no real tools at their disposal to make violators change their behavior. For the most part, when a violation is discovered, all a relevant Federal agency can do is send warning letters asking the offending company for voluntary product recalls.

All actions of any consequence by the FDA – the agency chiefly involved in such matters – typically will require going to court. If the food business refuses the FDA access, requests for inspection warrants and search warrants authorizing entry to the business are the first level of response.

A court order is also needed for the actual seizure of food products, or for an injunction ordering the business not to move the food. Even then, the FDA then does not take control of the food, although they are allowed to monitor how and when the problem lot or lots are dealt with.

In addition to the FDA, however, there are 15 different Federal agencies that oversee various food companies at various levels in the food production chain. As a result, too many gaps exist about who is responsible for what.

While the primary agencies involved in food inspection and safety are the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, even within these agencies there is extensive fragmentation. For example, the FDA covers, as an example, shelled eggs. The USDA, on the other hand, covers egg products such as liquid eggs. The USDA regulates chicken farms. But the FDA oversees the feed at these same farms.

More examples of this cross-confusion:

  • Sausage meat – USDA. Sausage meat casings – FDA.
  • Cheese pizza – FDA. Pepperoni – USDA.
  • Fish – FDA. Catfish – USDA.

Making things more problematic, both agencies currently lack the funds and manpower to monitor food production and safety as the law actually intends. Inspections are rare, and when performed, are often performed by private auditors and not government employees, which creates the usual conflicts of interest. Looking to be hired, outside auditors offer their services as cheaply as possible. As a result, the old adage “you get what you pay for” clearly applies.

Congress can act

In early 2015, two proposals to centralize food safety oversight were made public. Offered by President Obama, the consolidation of all the relevant food safety agencies into one was the second of these proposals.

The industry itself can act

Random testing of food products is clearly needed. Herd vaccinations must take place. Vaccinating cattle has proven to reduce E. coli by as much as 58 percent. But not all in the cattle industry have adopted the practice.

We can act

Safe cooking and safe food preparation can help kill existing bacteria like e. coli and salmonella and prevent such organisms from spreading. Washing hands is vital before beginning to prepare food. Buy cooking meat and eggs to recommended safe temperatures, and by not eating or drinking food containing raw eggs, we, ourselves can do much to reduce foodborne illnesses. Examples of commonly consumed foods containing raw eggs are homemade eggnog, undercooked French Toast and homemade Hollandaise sauce.

In addition, it’s a good practice to clean kitchen sponges daily. While intended to keep things clean, these are, ironically, the number one source of gems in the entire house. A dirty sponge can transfer bacteria all over the kitchen. After each use, put sponges in the dishwasher with a drying cycle or microwave the sponges for two minutes.

Ultimately, attorneys can act when all else fails

The civil justice system has proven to be the most effective, and at times the only means for the protection of consumers.

Lawsuits do more than compensate consumers for economic losses from foodborne illnesses. They provide a potentially powerful economic signal to firms to invest more in food safety.  −The Houston Law Review

Liability exposure is a major driver of risk management among growers.  −Brad Sullivan, food industry attorney

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.  Orson Welles.


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website:

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