None of us expects to be injured by eating a meal. This is especially true when we purchase our food from a reputable market or dine at an ostensibly clean restaurant. Yet the perils of poison in our food seem to be on the increase as can be seen by a small sampling of a few headlines from just this last month.

  • 3rd E. Coli Death Linked to Spinach
    An elderly Nebraska woman was killed by eating spinach contaminated with  E. coli. Earlier reports confirm an Idaho child and a Wisconsin female also died after eating greens infected with the bacteria. At least 190 other Americans have been sickened to date by the nationwide outbreak of the strain. (10.6.11)
  • Taco Bells Shuttered After E.coli Outbreak
    All of the Taco Bell restaurants in Philadelphia were closed volunatrily after an E.coli outbreak linked to green onions was reported in three states. Health officials described the E.coli outbreak as the largest to hit the Northeast in many years. (10.6.11)
  • Cantaloupe Toll Continues to Grow: 133 sick; 28 Dead
    Cantaloupes grown in Colorado are found to be contaminated with the listeria infection. Deaths linked to the cantaloupes have been reported in twelve states Illnesses and fatalities continue to be identified more than a month after the melons were recalled. (10.26.11)
  • Eggs Linked to Minnesota Salmonella Cases
    Contaminated eggs suspected in multiiple illnesses linked to Salmonella contamination in Minnesota. (10.20.11)

Food Poisoning Legal SupportThe Source of Poison in Foods

Food can contain various sorts of bacteria, including salmonella, listeria, E.coli and others. Some “poisons” can be harmless or produce mild transitory symptoms such as vomiting or stomach ache. At the other end of the spectrum, severe infections can cause kidney failure, paralysis, blindness and death. Those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.

Some toxins appear naturally in food. However, virulent bacteria strains can often be traced to dirty equipment, poor sanitation and bad storage techniques.

The FDA – The Endangered Watchdog

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is the Federal agency charged with monitoring the safety of the food sold on the American market. But obviously the screening is far from fool-proof and the prospects for improvement in FDA performance are not encouraging.

One reason is political—as the 2012 political campaign gets underway many candidates call for the slashing of “domestic” government programs, especially those which “regulate” industry. Proposals to cut the FDA enforcement arm by 20 per cent or more are drawing applause from certain constituencies around the country.

Another challenge to the efficacy of the FDA is the level of food being imported into the United States from abroad. The FDA expects 24 million  regulated shipments this year up from 6 million only ten years ago. According to the FDA Office of Regulatory Affairs only 2.06% of shipments were inspected in 2010, only 1.59% are likely to be examined this year and even less in 2012.

Basically 98% of FDA regulated shipments entering the country are not being inspected. (“Flood of food imported to US, but only 2 percent inspected.” MSNBC New Report 10.26.11)

California Consumers Legal Rights and Contaminated Food

In our state consumers have the right to rely on an implied “warranty” that their food is safe to eat. That seems simple and straightforward. But as with many things “legal,” it is not.

Defenders of the food industry typically contest food contamination claims by claiming that those who report “poisoning” are suffering from something else – such as a flu outbreak. They also are likely to assert that if the vegetables or fish are filled with bacteria it is because someone in a far away place like South America or Mexico was asleep at the switch… and often it is hard indeed to trace the original source of contamination.

Moreover the California Courts a number of years ago handed the purveyors of contaminated food a valuable legal weapon: the “natural” condition defense. A restaurant patron who chokes to death on a chicken bone in a taco cannot complain because chicken meat “naturally’ contains some bones. While this is true, the defenders of poisonous food will use this legal doctrine to their advantage…no food is totally  pure at its source nor can it ever be no made that way.

A Food Poisoning Legal Claim

These cases are not “open and shut.” Few civil claims are. Consumers whose loved ones have been severely injured by suspected contaminated food should immediately report the incident to a physician, the hospital emergency room, and local public health officials. The FDA should be notified. If possible, a sample of the food should be preserved for testing. And if legal action is contemplated get in touch with competent counsel without delay.