Guilty! The perpetrator of the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak, Stewart Parnell of the Peanut Corporation of America, just received a 28-year sentence for knowingly distributing Salmonella-containing peanuts. The familiar refrain will be that this is evidence that our food safety system is broken. But those who believe that the response in 2010, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), is the answer have it completely wrong. In fact, the results of this court case provide a strong incentive for everyone involved in food safety, from farms to restaurants, to exercise due diligence.
This case proves that innovation like traceback technology (being able to find where a particular food was produced that made people sick) makes it possible for our legal system to punish those who knowingly cause food safety outbreaks. But avoiding prosecution is an added incentive on top of those that already exist.
When a food is found to be contaminated and traced back to the source, the costs rapidly begin to pile up. First, the food will have to be recalled, a costly exercise. Next, people who have been sickened can be expected to sue, and there are both the legal expenses as well as the costs of remedying the harm imposed by the courts. And, in the information age, all of the data go public very quickly and the value of the brand name plummets, as do sales and profits. If that’s not enough, now you also may go to prison, perhaps for a very long time.
Two decades ago, it would have been exceedingly difficult to incur any of these costs by negligent producers. Everyone in the food industry knew how difficult it was to trace a problem back from sickened people to the source. There is always a delay in when you consume a tainted food to when you get sick, from several hours to several months, the latter of which is the case for listeriosis in pregnant women. In order to trace illness back to the source, you needed a lot of people to get sick from the same food and, even then, you couldn’t necessarily prove that a specific food they ate was what made people sick.
The federal government and private firms now have better tools that make traceback and positive identification much more likely. The Centers for Disease Control’s Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) was established in 1995 and conducts surveillance for certain pathogen infections that have laboratory-tested samples from patients. There are other systems as well, including PulseNet, that can match DNA in food pathogens consumed by ill patients to DNA in food plants or farms. All of this means that there is a much higher probability of being caught today.
What’s more, once a problem has been traced back to the origin, it is possible to figure out the root cause of the problem. This is really important. Posting that root cause of the problem allows everyone in the food industry chain to be aware and will cause the industry to reexamine the millions and millions of food safety contracts to see if they need updating. When that happens, private inspections will incorporate those changes. There are at least 10 times more private than public inspections, which will bring about changes more rapidly than if the responsibility is left to public entities.
What won’t bring about change rapidly is telling everyone to use a 50-year-old technology, known as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), and then trying to inspect everyone into compliance. That is what FSMA does and, because it is universal, it doesn’t matter whether that technology is useful in a particular situation or not. We’ve tried the regulation-and-inspection route for years, and every year we get the same statistics: 48 million people become sick with foodborne disease. The trends over the past 15 years from CDC show mixed results by individual pathogens but not much in the way of progress.
So “guilt” is exactly what is needed and points the way toward a much more effective system of reducing foodborne disease. Put the responsibility back on those in the food chain by giving them the incentives to do the right thing and avoid the disastrous consequences.