Food safety always a concern

            The recent outbreak of Cyclospora infections in the Midwest serves to highlight the fact that food safety remains a concern throughout the United States.  More than 400 people have been sickened by this parasite in Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and other states.  Investigators in Iowa and Nebraska think that the outbreak is linked to packaged salads prepared in Mexico and sold to U.S. restaurants such as Red Lobster and the Oliver Garden. 


            The U.S. has the tightest food regulations in the world yet it seems like a few times every year there are news reports of widespread outbreaks of food-borne organisms causing a variety of illnesses.  Why is that so?  There are a variety of explanations.  First, no matter how vigilant regulators are, the quantity and variety of foods grown and prepared in the United States is simply too massive for inspectors to be everywhere at all times.  Second, there is no question that growers and other food producers “cut corners” from time to time and bad practices lead to unhealthy food.  Third, there is a great deal of food consumed in the United States which is actually grown and prepared in other countries where regulations are nearly not as stringent as they are here.  Regardless of the reason, these outbreaks can be large and very serious, and tracking down the source can often be very, very difficult. 


            In addition to the widespread foot outbreaks, there can also be isolated instances of food contamination that lead to very serious illnesses.  Our firm handled a very serious food safety case related to the E-coli bacteria in a hamburger sold at a very popular fast food restaurant in the western Pennsylvania area.  The infection in a young toddler caused a catastrophic brain injury which left the child unable to walk or talk for the rest of her life.  Our investigation eventually revealed that the fast food restaurant had poor food preparation practices that led to either cross-contamination and/or the failure to properly cook the foods to an appropriate temperature.


            E-coli is a very common bacteria, and there is a particular strain of it known as E-coli 157 that is most often associated with contaminated food or water.  It is highly virulent and can lead to serious illness.  One of the main sources of 157 infection is ground beef that has not been cooked to a proper temperature.  The signs and symptoms of E-coli infection include abdominal pain and severe diarrhea.   The 157 strain is diagnosed by special tests or cultures done on a patient’s stool sample.


            Unfortunately, there is little that the average person can do to prevent ingestion of contaminated food at restaurants.  Typically, there are no signs or signals that food may be infected when it is placed in front of a patron.  The best thing you can hope for is that the restaurant has good food preparation practices.  Beyond that, there is some blind luck involved in avoiding illness from foods that have been grown or prepared in distant places.