When will we wise up about fast food, wellness, and food risks?

If Americans hadn’t already gotten a clue from books like Fast Food Nation and films like Super Size Me about just how harmful fast-food eating can be to health, they can look now to the latest outbreak of food-borne illness to raise further red flags, this time an E. coli outbreak tied to Chipoltle fast-food outlets: 40 people have been sickened, with a dozen needing hospital care, and now the chain has shut 43 of its outlets in Oregon and Washington in what it calls an abundance of caution.

This is not the Mexican food purveyor’s first such incident, as CBS News points out:  “Last July, five people became sick with another strain of E. coli after eating at a Seattle area Chipotle. Then in August, 64 cases of salmonella illness were linked to tainted tomatoes served up at two Chipotle locations in Minnesota. That same month, 80 customers and 18 employees of a Chipotle in southern California became ill, and some tested positive for norovirus.”

If you’re keeping track, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that multistate outbreaks involving food, which has been contaminated before it gets served, are on the upswing, with 24 occurring annually and crossing the borders of anywhere from two to 37 states; they caused 56% of deaths in all reported food-borne outbreaks, although they accounted for just 3% of all such outbreaks from 2010 to 2014.

If you want some further eye-popping stats, researchers report that between “1998-2008, CDC received reports of 13,405 food-borne disease outbreaks, which resulted in 273,120 reported cases of illness, 9,109 hospitalizations, and 200 deaths. Of the 7,998 outbreaks with a known [cause], 3,633 (45%) were caused by viruses, 3,613 (45%) were caused by bacteria, 685 (5%) were caused by chemical and toxic agents, and 67 (1%) were caused by parasites. Among the 7,724 (58%) outbreaks with an implicated food or contaminated ingredient reported, 3,264 (42%) could be assigned to one of 17 predefined commodity categories: fish, crustaceans, mollusks, dairy, eggs, beef, game, pork, poultry, grains/beans, oils/sugars, fruits/nuts, fungi, leafy vegetables, root vegetables, sprouts, and vegetables from a vine or stalk.”

Because Americans devour so many meals at fast food outlets, when the entire U.S. food supply struggles to minimize contamination, especially by disease, these incidents will show up, big time, in chain restaurants. A new New Yorker article, in asking a provocative question as to whether fast food can be made more healthy, also provides insights into the food supply chain and the obstacles that smaller outlets confront when they try to provide healthier offerings and compete, especially on price, against a behemoth like McDonald’s, which, for example, goes through two billion eggs each year.

On the one hand, McDonald’s can benefit public health by deciding to sell antibiotic-free chickens, prompting a food industry wave that soon was joined by other giants like Costco and Tyson Foods. But the New Yorker points out that small businesses, like the Sweetgreen chain started by three Georgetown grads, race to keep up with the scope and scale of McDonald’s sourcing and supply, so they can’t sell possibly healthier foods as readily because of cost- and provider-concerns. Faster food outlets can aim to provide healthier eats but there are only so many local sources in a given area — and the competition for quality products comes at a cost.

As for Chipoltle, it positions itself as offering healthier fare and”Food with Integrity,” and it employs software to track the sources of all its foods. Health officials praise the company for the actions it has taken and cooperating fully in efforts to quell the outbreak affecting its restaurants.

That’s better than the mendacious conduct that so many corporations display in crises. But, as I’ve written before, food safety’s a major, inescapable concern for us all and it requires significant attention and resources as can only be commanded at the federal level; it’s past time for the dithering by our government officials about matters that make us sick.

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