In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu admonishes us to know our enemy or be defeated by it.
As a society, we have failed to heed that wisdom in our fight against foodborne illness. Too often, the fight against foodborne illness is framed and fought as a conflict between consumers and industry. That must stop. Instead, consumers and industry must work in partnership. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (CDC) estimates 48 million people get sick; 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases in the U.S. each year. According to figures compiled from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data by Food Safety News, the annual cost of foodborne illness exceeds $15.6 billion in the U.S. alone.
In some respects, the tension between consumers and industry is predictable. Consumers are apt to believe foodborne illness outbreaks are the result of companies putting profits before safety. That is rarely the case, but when outbreaks have resulted from nefarious conduct (e.g., PCA), it has left lasting impressions. Additionally, while consumers expect safe food (as they should), they also fail to understand the manifest difficulty of eradicating foodborne pathogens 100 percent of the time.
Industry has made extraordinary progress and expends enormous resources combating foodborne illness. That work often goes unnoticed, and the industry often gets more than its share of blame when things go wrong. Simultaneously, industry personnel are intimately acquainted with foodborne illness and the difficulties in fighting it. They understandably— and appropriately, in my view — assert consumers should share the responsibility for preventing foodborne illness.
Over time, these conflicting positions have fostered a profoundly damaging “Us vs. Them” mentality. Both sides have at times exacerbated the issue. For instance, industry telling consumers to “just cook it” is not only unhelpful, it oversimplifies the matter by failing to address the complexities of foodborne illness transmission. Winning the war against foodborne illness will require everyone to get into the fight.
So, how we do we get consumers and industry on the same side? One approach would be for industry advocacy groups, in cooperation with food safety organizations, to collaborate on a national mass media campaign to educate consumers on the fundamentals of food safety. First and foremost, a successful campaign would reduce the occurrence of illness and prevent avoidable deaths. As a corollary benefit, reducing foodborne illness would reduce associated losses incurred as a result. Fewer outbreaks with fewer illnesses would inevitably lead to fewer recalls, lawsuits, regulatory costs, etc. Let’s work together to better know our enemy and together defeat it. NP