Food Safety Impacts — and Is Impacted by — Consumers

Departments - Consumer Perspectives

August 14, 2017

DARIN DETWILER, Assistant Dean; Northeastern University College of Professional Studies; Boston, Mass.

In Upton Sinclair’s landmark 1906 book, The Jungle, the author exposed unsanitary working conditions and how the meat industry was putting consumers at risk for disease. Sinclair published his exposé in the form of a novel, as readers had become sensitized and experienced in judging the exaggerated and fake stories written during the era of “Yellow Journalism.” Sinclair wanted his readers to ask if the accurate, yet horrific, descriptions of meat processing in his novel could be true.

In a 1906 London Times literary review of The Jungle, the reviewer described Sinclair’s impact on readers as if the social impact were more important than the literary aspect of the book, stating: “The book is published as a novel, and it might claim to be, therefore, under the head of fiction. But the very first thing to be said about it is that, if it is a novel, a work of imagination and invention, the conduct of an author who invented and published in a form easily accessible to all readers, young and old, male or female, such disgusting, inflammatory matter as this would deserve the severest censure.…Unhappily we have good reason for believing it to be all fact, not fiction.…By its truths or untruths a story stands or falls, and it is with nothing less than horror that we learn it to be true.”

Also significant in the review is the British newspaper’s call to action, which, unfortunately, still holds true over 100 years later: “The things described by Mr. Sinclair happened yesterday, are happening today, and will happen tomorrow and the next day, until some Hercules comes to cleanse the filthy stable.”

Most of the significant changes in food quality, labeling, and safety policies share a commonality: the voice of victims and their families. Their emotional stories help communicate the true burden of disease. In a time of “alternative facts,” faces and families are hard to question.

Victims’ families from the 1993 “Jack in the Box” E. coli outbreak helped USDA bring about significant changes in food inspection policies, labeling, and consumer education. Packages of raw meat and poultry gained safe-handling instruction labels as a direct result of the collaboration between USDA and the work done by parents who lost children during the outbreak. Some would even go on to serve as USDA inspection policy committee members.

After the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak that sickened more than 200 people across 26 states, California growers established the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) to train for and ensure the safest processing methods. To do this, LGMA worked with a victim advocacy group to produce a training video on “The WHY Behind Food Safety”. This award-winning video incorporates the first-person stories of two victims from the E. coli outbreak to communicate how all participants in the food industry play a critical role in food safety.

In the court room, victims from the 2008-2009 PCA peanut Salmonella outbreak not only assisted prosecutors, but also fought for the ability to testify during the sentencing. After hearing testimony from victims and those who buried loved ones, the judge announced, “Striking and strong testimony was heard today. Consumers are at the mercy of food producers for the safety of the products. These acts [of the convicted PCA executives] were driven by profit and the protection of profit…thus greed.”

This landmark case resulted in long prison sentences that shocked not only the victims, but also corporate America. The recent CNBC show “American Greed” chronicled the case, and it, too, leveraged the voices of victims to tell the whole story.

Victims from the Salmonella peanut outbreak and other foodborne illness outbreaks tied to produce and other foods played a successful role in persuading legislators to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2010 and then-President Obama to sign it into law in 2011. Consumer advocacy groups later helped foodborne illness victims from across the country visit Capitol Hill to ask their Congressional representatives to support the full funding and implementation of FSMA. In many cases, these personal accounts came not from parents, but from young survivors who are still suffering the long-term impacts of illnesses tied to adulterated foods such as cantaloupes and spinach.

Today, many food companies that prioritize food safety continue to involve victims and advocates to support the mission of mitigating outbreaks and recalls. Corporate training at some organizations has evolved to include annual “Food Safety Day” events for all employees with victims and advocates sharing the real stories behind data and policies. National associations in the food industry and regulatory agencies at the federal, state, and local levels also leverage first-hand accounts of victims to emphasize the urgency of mitigating recalls and outbreaks.

While today’s claims of “fake news” and “alternative facts” can be compared to the “Yellow Journalism” of more than a century ago, perhaps one instrument to clear any doubts about the need to prioritize and invest in food safety is the use of victims’ stories. Charts and graphs may catch audience’s eyes, but emotional accounts from children or grieving parents impact audience’s emotions (as illustrated by this issue’s article on “Allergen Risk Management: Putting a Face to the Risk.”).

Students, regulators, policymakers, and those who work in all corners of the food industry are finding that victims’ stories help separate fact from fiction and truths from untruths. There will never be an end to foodborne pathogens, but we can continue to minimize the quantity and the scale of failures in food quality and safety with the use of consumers as a part of our modern version of Hercules.