Tracking the Food Safety Working Group - More or Less Legal Exposure For Food Sellers?

This week the Obama administration announced the launch of a new website for the recently formed food safety working group. Obama announced the formation of this group in March in the wake of the high-profile food safety issues surrounding PCA peanut products

This website will assist in tracking the efforts of the working group. As discussed previously on this blog, this group is expected to make recommendations aimed at detection, awareness and government reorganization. Possible examples include increasing funding to states to monitor food-borne illness, combining FDA and USDA food safety efforts, reexamining mandatory recall authority, increasing retail enforcement and implementing more aggressive consumer warnings.

What is not clear is whether the working group will look beyond just detection, awareness and reorganization to bolder initiatives that may result in less consumer illness and less legal exposure for food sellers. Bolder initiatives could include funding for irradiation, consumer food safety education, and fast-track development and implementation of technology that can sample food products for whole colonies of microorganisms


Irradiation as a Part of Food Safety Reform?

In the wake of the latest Salmonella recall, Congress is holding well-publicized food safety hearings, and food safety may be rising on the priority list of the Obama administration. One question that arises is whether the perceived crisis in food safety will lead lawmakers and the public to revisit the option of food irradiation. The New York Times recently ran a nice piece on the topic. The article begins:  

Before the recent revelation that peanut butter could kill people, even before the spinach scare of three summers ago, the nation’s food industry made a proposal. It asked the government for permission to destroy germs in many processed foods by zapping them with radiation.  

That was about nine years ago, in the twilight of the Clinton administration. The government has taken limited action since.

The article quotes Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, as saying “It’s unnecessary for people to be getting sick today with pathogens in spinach or pathogens in peanut butter.” He describes the potential for irradiation of food as “humongous” and says that “[w]e have the technologies to prevent this kind of illness.” 

As discussed previously on this blog, irradiation has wide support in the food industry and even has the support of plaintiffs’ lawyers such as Bill Marler, who has written a lengthy three-part series on the topic.  

The question may not be whether irradiation is another tool that can prevent food-borne illness, but rather why is irradiation not being used on a wide-scale. Mr. Pillai likened fears of irradiation to “early phobias about the pasteurization of milk.” Aside from lengthy delays in FDA approval, consumer fear may be the problem. The only solutions may lie in (1) a joint effort between industry and lawmakers to educate the public on the benefits and safety of food irradiation, and (2) action by Congress and the FDA to help provide industry with the resources and political cover to begin using irradiation on a wide scale.

Some In The Plaintiffs' Bar Favor Irradiation

As previously discussed on this blog, the FDA recently approved irradiation for iceberg lettuce and spinach. We pointed out  that "irradiation may provide an added level of protection from food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. When used in combination with other state-of-the-art food handling practices, irradiation should dramatically reduce the chances of transmitting food-borne illnesses to consumers."

Now, it appears that at least some in the plaintiffs' community agree that irradiation of fresh produce may be a good thing. Bill Marler, one of the leading plaintiffs' attorneys in the food liability area, is running a series of in-depth pieces on his blog on irradiation.

Mr. Marler's conclusion in part II of his series echoes what we've posted in this blog :"In summary, food irradiation is not a 'silver bullet' for food safety. However, the increasing problem of illnesses and deaths associated with consumption of fresh produce, including lettuce and spinach, emphasizes the need for an intervention."

Irradiation - Evaluating the Investment

With a fair amount of fanfare , last week the FDA approved irradiation of iceburg lettuce and spinach. For restaurant owners, the question is whether they should invest in this process.

Like pasteurization, irradiation may provide an added level of protection from food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. When used in combination with other state-of-the-art food handling practices, irradiation should dramatically reduce the chances of transmitting food-borne illnesses to consumers.

The FDA estimates that irradiated fruits and vegetables will cost two to three cents more per pound than nonirradiated products. Irradiation does not substitute for any other food safety practices or investments. Indeed, without added precautions against cross-contamination or field-to-fork regulation of the supply chain, irradiation provides little benefit.

Perhaps more significant than cost is the question of consumer acceptance. The good news is that the FDA does not require labeling of irradiated foods by restaurants (as it currently does for supermarket products). Yet some organic foods advocates are passionate about what they believe to be harmful effects of irradiation  and are already lobbying restaurants and consumers to steer clear of irradiated foods.

At this point, arguments against irradiated foods are similar to those against pasteurization and appear to be grounded more in emotion than in science. In weighing issues of consumer acceptance and lowered risk to human health, businesses should understand that unlike economics and politics, in food safety, perception is not reality. Failure to irradiate will likely result in more personal injury claims and a significant threat to the business and the brand.