“It’s Just Something I Ate”: Changing Consumer Apathy Toward Food Safety

This article is an excerpt from an online panel discussion hosted by Burton Software on September 17, 2015. Start from the beginning of this seven-part series on innovations and development in food safety from the points of view of industry, technology, and policy or watch the entire panel discussion.

Our panelists are: Steven Burton (creator of Icicle cloud-based food safety application), Darin Detwiler (senior policy coordinator at STOP Foodborne Illness), and Michael Koeris (co-founder of Sample6 pathogen detection and control technology). Learn more about them at the end of this article.

Q3: There’s no question that high-profile food safety recalls have influenced the direction of policy and law. The new law in China, for example, is gaining attention in industry for its severe penalties for non-compliance, including making it easier for individuals to be prosecuted as criminally liable for outbreaks and recalls. At the same time, the recent federal criminal trial of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives made headlines this summer after tainted peanut butter sickened thousands and killed nine people in 2009. How are consumers playing a role in these policy and legislative developments and how does consumer advocacy affect business objectives for food producers and retailers?

Detwiler: This is an important question to ask in terms of looking over the last two decades. The 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak is referred to as the “9/11” of the food industry. Before then, the average consumer didn’t think about things such as e. coli or even foodborne pathogens. Since that time, there have been radical changes. The year after that event, E. coli was labelled by the USDA as an illegal adulterant, and this led to changes in food safety education, pathogen reduction, and the entire approach that the USDA has been taking towards this issue (and similar changes in the FDA as well).

One very important thing to point out, as this question alludes to, is the role of the consumer. I’ve been involved in this for over 20 years stemming from that 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak and it comes at the loss of my son, who was 17 months old. He was the youngest victim of that 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. There are many parents across the country who, since the death of a child, have been very vocal about the true burden of disease, speaking with legislators, speaking with the industry, and taking action. In fact, many argue that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that passed and was signed into law in 2011 would not have had bipartisan support if it were not for the voices of the victims from the spinach outbreak, from the Peanut Corporation of America outbreak, who took the time to play the role of consumer advocate and say that something must be done. The policy makers in the United States listening to this have definitely heard the burden of disease and continue to allow consumers to play a role as we go forward with finalizing these rules and bringing FSMA to implementation.

Burton: I agree that there is a small but instrumental voice of consumers that influence the legislation in a positive way, but the thing that amazes me is the general apathy of most of the population. I mean, it’s what – 42 million people a year getting foodborne illness in the United States? How many of those people are adding their voice to the choir? I think it’s a very small number and maybe that’s a result of the fact that we’ve lived with foodborne illness since the dawn of time but we seem to be much less upset when we do get foodborne illness than other types of illnesses where the alarms go off and people demand action in the short-term.

Moderator: There was a recent report saying that the average consumer in the US is more concerned with chemicals in foods than with foodborne illness.

Detwiler: That’s true. You know, at fast food restaurants, it’s almost a joke here that there are more people who are worried about being able to bring a gun or breastfeed, or the religious or political beliefs of the people in the restaurant, than the food safety that takes place there.

And to address the comment too, 40 some odd million Americans a year…most of them are not in the vulnerable population. Most people who get sick from foodborne illness, you know, “it’s just something I ate, I’ll get over it” kind of a thing, are not realizing the impact on the young or the elderly, perhaps pregnant women or those with a compromised immune system, that end up being those numbers that end up hospitalized. Among upwards of 3000 Americans who die every year from foodborne illness. I talk to parents on a regular basis and in most cases, families don’t talk about food safety until it’s too late. Something has already happened, the worst thing has already happened. It’s not considered to be a proactive dinner table discussion, if you will, across America. It is something that we very much take for granted. Again, until it’s too late.

Koeris: First of all, condolences to you, Darin, for the loss of your son. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was, it’s a terrible, terrible thing. Another personal story, we have experienced foodborne illness here at Sample6 as well. A co-worker was very, very sick eating something wrong and it was not the type of easily self-resolving illness.

In fact, variations of illness range from “I ate something wrong and my stomach’s upset,” to “I end up in the emergency room,” to “I die.” And that almost happened. You start to realize it should not be the default that “I just ate something wrong and it will resolve itself.” The default should be “there is an illness that resulted from either food being contaminated or, say, food practices not being followed, and somebody and some organization is responsible for that.” So not just the voice of victims and consumers that is really important, but also enforcement in the form of litigation. So that certainly plays into, at least, the industry’s awareness of changing behaviour and it certainly indicates, with Jack in the Box and all these other outbreaks ‐ including now, very recently in the field that we work, listeria (like Blue Bell for example) – that these must be considered.

But Darin, your point is exactly right. We need to change the perception from being, “I’ll just live through it,” to “let’s escalate it, let’s inform the restaurant, the consumer brand-facing representatives of the organization, and also help authorities with what’s being going on.”

Burton: What I’m sitting here thinking about is the fact that I think the United States is far ahead of Canada in terms of actually using legislation or the criminal court system to enforce and encourage facilities to adopt food safety programs. You see the Peanut [Corporation of America] case, where the executives are facing life in prison for knowingly shipping adulterated food, whereas in Vancouver there was recently a similar case. Two important differences though: they didn’t know when they shipped the product that it was adulterated (but they found out shortly afterwards) and nobody died (which was very fortuitous happenstance from their perspective). But you know, instead of any criminal offences being brought to bear against these people, they were essentially forced to stand up in court and apologize, pay a $50 000 fine, and go back to running their company, which I think is really appalling.

Detwiler: It’s important to point out, too, that other than the Peanut Corporation of America case (which the sentencing is to take place next Monday and I will be there in Georgia for that) there have only been a handful of cases where the United States Department of Justice has actually tried and convicted people, whether it be financial penalty or jail time. And those have only taken place within the last two to three years even though we have on the books for over 40 years a corporate responsibility doctrine out of a Supreme Court case of US v. Park in 1975 ‐ it’s almost 40 years until we have the United States government actually enforcing this to the extent of criminal punishment against executives. So you’re right, it is a relatively new issue and one that will be continuing as we look at what to do with these companies that for too long have gotten away with business as usual involving people getting sick and dying.

Up next: What are the challenges for food producers and retailers in complying with these new regulations?

Go to Part 4: How Achievable are the Goals of FSMA? >>>

Watch the whole panel discussion here.

About Our Panelists

Steven Burton, creator of Icicle Technologies Inc., is a software architect who started his career in architecture and moved into construction before establishing a successful manufacturing business in the ’90s. Moving into the software sector in the late ’90s, he established Burton Software in 1999 to specialize in the development of high-performance web-based software application. Burton initially designed Icicle to address the challenges to managing food safety for small to medium-sized stakeholders in the food industry. With Icicle, Burton strives to improve the safety of the world’s food supply by developing the tools to empower companies involved in the production, processing and distribution of food products to develop and verify codex-based HACCP systems.

Since the 1993 “Jack in the Box” E.coli outbreak, policymakers at the state, federal, and food industry levels have called upon Darin Detwiler as a significant voice in strengthening America’s food policies. Detwiler is a frequent speaker at national food policy conferences, delivering keynote speeches before government, industry, and university audiences across the USA and Europe. Detwiler is the senior policy coordinator at STOP Foodborne Illness, the nation’s leading nonprofit, public health organization dedicated to the prevention of illness and death from foodborne pathogens. He is the lead academic consultant and an adjunct professor in the MS Program in Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industry at Northeastern University, where he is also a Doctoral Candidate in Law and Policy with a focus on food policy.

Dr. Michael Koeris co-founded Sample6, Inc. and serves as its Vice President of Business Development. Koeris served as the President and Chief Operating Officer of Sample6. Koeris previously worked at KPMG Consulting and McKinsey & Company in Germany, as well as Flagship Ventures in Cambridge. Mr. Koeris was a recipient of the German Academic Exchange Fellowship (DAAD) to study at MIT. Koeris did his doctoral work on network approaches to combat antibiotic-tolerant bacteria with Professor James Collins, and co-developed Sample6’s technology, working with Tim. Koeris is a visiting scholar with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Boston University as well as at MIT. Prior to his doctoral degree, Koeris graduated with a M.S. in Biochemistry from the Free University of Berlin.

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