Food Safety Campaigns Seem Winnable Illustration by Oliver Munday
Illustration by Oliver Munday

New Orleans     Reading an article in The New Yorker called “A Bug in the System” by Wil S. Hylton got me thinking over the last couple of days.  Early in the piece the reporter presented some arresting figures:

“Each year, contaminated food sickens forty-eight million Americans, of whom a hundred and twenty-eight thousand are hospitalized, and three thousand die.”

48,000,000 Americans is something like one out of seven folks.  Almost 15%.  128,000 people in the hospital.  3000 dying.  Talk about a mass-base for a campaign!  How does a problem like that slip by unattended?

Hylton goes on to say,

“Salmonella is both common and potentially lethal.  It infects more than a million Americans each year, sending nineteen thousand victims to the hospital, and killing more people than any other food-borne pathogen.  A recent USDA study found that twenty-four percent of all cut-up chicken parts are contaminated by some form of salmonella.  Another study by Consumer Reports, found that more than a third of chicken breasts salmonella carried a drug-resistant strain.”

I’m kidded by a comrade and friend about my food consumption program.  I’m forced to eat pretty healthily at home, but basically I have eaten frozen dinners for decades because I have about three minutes worth of patience for the cooking process by the time I hit home every night.

Certainly there are groups working on these kinds of issues.  The New Yorker talks about some country, Norway I think, that has beaten the problem down to almost nothing.  They tout a Seattle-based lawyer who claims to have won $600 million for victims in various lawsuits while collecting $120 million for himself and his firm, which probably guaranteed that the article caught the eye of more lawyers than organizers.

Still, somehow the numbers are so huge and the targets so vulnerable that it troubles me that something must be missing, if we haven’t won food safety yet.  It’s mind-boggling to imagine the number of actions that are possible and the targets that are available for some slice of almost 50 million people getting sick and not happy about it.  Does anyone really buy chicken if folks are picketing and leafleting a grocery store where they bought something that made them sick?  Or a restaurant?  And, if it’s a supplier, is it that hard to track the chain to store and to consumers?  Heck, this may be one of the few clear areas where social media could really be weaponized, if mobilized into action.

So, the foundational challenge as it is in so many organizing situation is how to find all of those people.  How to build the list?  Public health reports are clearly public information and would identify conditions at all kinds of food purveyors, though the boots on the ground doing such inspections are part of the public sector cutbacks in cities and states as well, but there we are still with the targets.  How about the hospital emergency room?  Is there a requirement for hospitals to report food poisoning cases as public health concerns?  In the late 1970’s in Dallas ACORN v. Parkland Hospital District in Dallas, Texas, we won a decision that allowed us to set up tables in the waiting rooms of the public hospital to talk to people about the organization and its fights around health issues then.  We’re researching now whether or not that decision has endured sufficiently in public facilities to be useful on a number of campaigns.  How long would we have to leaflet and set up at all manner of hospitals in order to hit a critical mass of potential food poisoning victims to move into action?  A couple of weeks?  Months?  What?

I, we, everybody needs to think about this, because the one thing I’m sure of is that if 48 million people are being brought to their knees in front of toilets every year and stretched across their beds moaning while holding their stomachs, where there’s a will, there’s a way to find a lot of those people.  Once found, I would make a big bet that they could be put into action.  There are few things more satisfying than the fight for justice, but there’s a reason people speak of revenge as sweet.