Very few of us who fall sick due to a foodborne illness end up getting compensation for it. Part of the reason is that most of the time we don’t report it and even if we do, it is often hard to point out the food that caused the illness. Food companies prefer to settle out of court rather than risk the reputation free-fall they may encounter if cases play out under public watch. Therefore the cases you do hear about are usually the ones associated with major foodborne outbreaks. Challenges that consumers face in their ability to get compensation include:

  1. The often long incubation time of the disease. A symptom may show up after three weeks of infection. During that time the consumer would have eaten multiple meals with variable components. How does the consumer remember what he or she ate for lunch on a particular day three weeks ago?
  2. Having no sample of the food to test. The food may have been completely eaten or deteriorated in quality and dumped long before a problem was noticed. 
  3. The ubiquitous nature of the pathogen in question. It could be argued that the pathogen is “everywhere” and was probably introduced during the costumer’s handling. 
  4. Being an isolated case. If others ate the same food and did not get sick, then it is difficult or impossible to prove that the food in question was the cause.  

These challenges are not to say that food companies will be careless in ensuring that their food is safe. They will take the necessary steps to keep their customers safe but will always be mindful of the cost. Food companies will aim at minimum, to meet regulatory requirements for safety. Any effort above and beyond that minimum requirement will be contingent on how much consumers will be willing to pay for the added benefit such as increased shelf life. 

Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.
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